The Immunity Project hopes to build a better HIV vaccine through crowdfunding and machine learning


The Verge by Nathan Ingraham | January 23, 2014


The team behind a new HIV vaccine is hoping that crowdfunding will help raise funds towards the Immunity Project. (Photo: The Verge)

The team behind a new HIV vaccine is hoping that a combination of crowdfunding, venture capital, and an innovative new scientific approach will help it to a major breakthrough in fighting the virus.

The Immunity Project thinks it has found a new way to fight HIV, and its using a combination of Kickstarter-style crowdfunding as well as backing from notable startup incubator Y Combinator to get off the ground. Perhaps most notably, the Immunity Project wants to give away its vaccine for free — and it hopes to have it ready for widespread distribution by 2016.

At a high level, the Immunity Project says that its vaccine works by "turning those who receive it into HIV controllers." The Immunity Project calls HIV controllers "miraculous" people who have an inborn immunity to HIV — unlike the immune systems of normal people, HIV controllers have the ability to easily target and neutralize the HIV proteins that show up in infected cells. Unfortunately, only one in 300 HIV patients has this ability — but the Immunity Project says that this "power" will be granted to anyone who takes the vaccine.



To build the vaccine, the Immunity Project turned to a machine learning algorithm that scanned blood samples from HIV controllers. It learned exactly what aspects of the HIV their immune system targets, and those targets were then used to develop the vaccine. Another key component of the vaccine is that it doesn't need to be refrigerated, something the Immunity Project believes will help it make it significantly easier to distribute the drug in areas like Africa.

Related: Network Analysis of Science Crowdfunding

There's no doubt that these are lofty goals, but the Immunity Project's vaccine is still a long way from being a reality, and it's going to need a lot of money to get through the clinical trial phase. That's where the Immunity Project's fundraising comes in — the company is looking to raise $482,000 over the next 30 days for one final experiment that'll use human blood before it begins its first clinical trial. The money needed for that phase one clinical trial, which will test the vaccine on humans for the first time, is significantly more — around $25 million.

That's where Y Combinator comes in — the Immunity Project is only the second non-profit organization that Y Combinator has ever backed."This is certainly a new sort of company for us, but it's the kind of crazy idea we like," said Sam Altman, a Y Combinator partner, in a statement. "I spent a fair amount of time with this group during their application process, and am personally donating both money and blood."

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