Can an Ohio Startup End the Flu?

How Cincinnati’s Blue Water Vaccines wants to change medicine

Developing one vaccination that protects against the flu for a lifetime might sound like an impossible dream. But not to the team at Blue Water Vaccines in Cincinnati, who are working to develop just that — a healthcare-altering vaccination that can be used once instead of each season. Their goal is to make an economical vaccine that can truly change how people think about flu prevention.

“We’re using bacteria to manufacture the vaccines that are cheaper and more scalable,” said Joe Hernandez, founder and CEO. “In theory, we can vaccinate once in your lifetime and you’d never have to worry about the seasonal flu. I’m so excited. It’s a true labor of love. My grandfather always used to say, “Life is about leaving legacies.” Hopefully, this will be a legacy that we can all be proud of.”

Blue Water’s story began across the pond at Oxford University in England, where researchers proposed that the influenza virus was not as variable as originally thought. Hernandez saw the report but wasn’t ready to move forward until it was confirmed by others in the scientific community.

“It was quite controversial; people dismissed it as too radical,” said Hernandez. “But there was a lot of validity around the fact that every season, we get one prominent strain. For 10 or 15 years, nothing was done. And then a scientist was able to validate those models, and that was the genesis of Blue Water.”

Hernandez and his team worked with the University to license the vaccine concept and were granted time to find investors and plan the technology needed to expand the idea. With a background in both science and business, Hernandez was able to navigate the complicated cross-Atlantic deal and come to an agreement to bring Oxford’s idea to life. Now, the company is aiming to begin human trials in the next 18 months to two years with a vaccine that won’t be made of eggs like the current version of the flu shot, helping to reach more people. Their ultimate goal is to make a one-time flu vaccine that’s more accessible and less expensive than current options.

“I’m fortunate that, when it comes to scientific conversations, I can understand the jargon and I can usually deduce whether there’s true scientific evidence for a claim or not,” said Hernandez. “On the finance side, we’re looking at how to put a business together. These are two very important educational elements that I’m able to apply to what I’m trying to do. And I’m lucky — I get to do what I love.”

To help make that dream a reality, Blue Water needed a partner and a home, and Ohio Third Frontier partner CincyTech helped with financing and starting the business in the Queen City.

“I approached them and said, ‘I can set up the company anywhere. We have interest from investment groups in Boston, New York and the UK, but I want to set this company up here in Ohio,’” said Hernandez. “The deal was all Ohio-based and Cincinnati-based investors. We’re really excited to work with them; they’re going to be great partners.”

Hernandez, the son of two Cuban immigrants, is from south Florida and had very little experience in Ohio before he arrived. But after experiencing Cincinnati, he believes Ohio represents the ideal place to start a company like Blue Water.

“What I’ve always respected was the level of integrity,” said Hernandez. “The Midwest integrity and reputation are real. People shake your hand and they really mean what they say. If they can’t do things, they tell you. We want to grow biotech in Ohio and we’re excited to move forward and truly change the world.”

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