Tom Johnston’s Lifesaving Business Model

By Purnell T. Cropper | December 2, 2014

In 2009, the H1N1 influenza virus—commonly known as swine flu—caused worldwide panic. The initial outbreak in Mexico turned into a pandemic, ravaging Africa and Southeast Asia and, according to estimates, causing up to half a million deaths. Desperate to devise a plan to tackle the disease that plagued his country, Mexican president Felipe Calderón and his staff met with scientists, health officials, and researchers. One of those consulted was Tom Johnston ’96. Then the vice president of strategy at Novavax Inc., Johnston and a team worked with the Mexican government to develop a vaccine and distribute it to the population through an emergency licensure procedure. He shared his business model with the Mexican authorities, a franchise model that allowed efficient local production of much-needed vaccines. Later, Johnston met with the National Security Council at the White House to discuss the same approach and how it could be used globally. Johnston takes an adaptive approach to business, meaning he examines an organization’s business model in one industry and attempts to modify it to work in another. He worked on the franchise model concept while an MBA student, applying strategies from Coca Cola’s manufacturing process to the vaccine industry. He proposed crafting a portion of a vaccine in central facilities—as Coke does with its syrup—and shipping it to a different location farther away to be finalized and administered. Johnston cited a possible, relevant application: If there were a vaccine for preventing Ebola infection, it could be manufactured on an aircraft carrier docked off the coast of West Africa and administered locally, a feat that would be much more difficult under traditional models. “These are the opportunities of a lifetime to save lives and make a real difference in the world,” Johnston said. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Johnston studied computer science at Arcadia. He has worked for well-known tech sector companies like Comcast and Microsoft, as well as in financial and digital security organizations. In 2007, a year after receiving his MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Johnston transitioned to the vaccine industry. Johnston calls the industry a “unique combination of entrepreneurial and philanthropic spirit,” and he’s been operating in that mode for the past seven years. Now, he’s chief executive officer of Mucosis, a vaccine development company in the Netherlands. In addition, he serves as an adviser to other vaccine and medical device companies around the world. Johnston has led Mucosis in its development of mucosal vaccines that can be applied through the nose or the mouth; that is, through a spray rather than a needle. Founded in 2007, the company has received funding from the Dutch government for a nasal vaccine that fights respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children less than a year old. The CDC reports that between 75,000 and 125,000 children in the United States are hospitalized each year due to RSV. On a global scale, the disease is even more devastating. Mucosis claims that every year, an estimated 64 million RSV infections occur, causing approximately 160,000 deaths. Though unreliable treatments exist, there is no vaccine available for preventing disease caused by RSV, something that Johnston and Mucosis hope to change. In addition, the company also is researching other vaccines to prevent influenza, pneumococcal diseases, and bacterial diarrhea. Johnston spends a week in the Netherlands once or twice a month; the rest of the time, he works out of his home in Maryland. A typical day includes early morning email reviews, staff video calls with the team in Holland, working with various media outlets, and reaching out to private and government investors. He has daily calls with groups in China and the Netherlands, in addition to other partners around the globe. His day wraps up around four or five in the afternoon, but he is always on call to speak with investors in different time zones, negotiating investment and licensing deals in India, China, Spain, Mexico, and South Korea, among others. “I have been afforded the great opportunity to work in different cultures creating deals that save lives and make money,” Johnston said. “I think that comes from establishing trust and being an ambassador of your country, your company, and yourself. Having realized this worldly view is my biggest accomplishment.” “Being an ambassador” is an idea that Johnston first encountered when spending a year abroad at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. He recalled advice from Lorna Stern, vice president of Arcadia University and executive director of The College of Global Studies, and former executive director David Larsen: to act as a representative of Arcadia University, of the United States, and of himself. It’s a mindset that, according to Johnston, he has carried throughout his entire life. “When I visit China, for instance, there’s less bafflement and more openness and understanding of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” he said. “I aim to bridge things between cultures, between businesses, friends, and families.”