15 Minutes: Seth Berkley
The president and CEO of International AIDS Vaccine Initiative talks about winning allies, getting beyond egos, and tackling an enormous social problem
As a Rockefeller Foundation health specialist in the early 1990s, Dr. Seth Berkley was increasingly concerned by the lack of progress in developing an AIDS vaccine. The vast majority of research efforts at the time were focused on treatments for HIV/AIDS, and even now, only 2 percent to 3 percent of the $20 billion the world spends annually on fighting the virus is devoted to finding an effective vaccine.
In 1996, at Berkley's urging, Rockefeller established the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI). Headed by Berkley, IAVI was set up outside the foundation as an independent nonprofit.
Since its creation, IAVI has raised $350 million from governments, foundations, and other donors around the world. IAVI and its global network of nonprofit, government, and for-profit corporate partners have advanced five vaccine candidates to clinical trials in eight countries. And an independent evaluation last year concluded that the initiative had "met or exceeded most of its key goals and has been a very effective and positive force in the development of an AIDS vaccine."
How did you get consensus within the Rockefeller Foundation to launch IAVI?
There wasn't consensus. In fact, there was a lot of concern. Initially, everybody understood that business needed to be engaged in solving some of these big problems. But people got really nervous about the legal issues of foundations working with for-profit institutions.
How did that get ironed out?
I give then-Rockefeller president Peter Goldmark credit because although he kept losing his nerve, he always came back to the importance of the problem and supported it. And I'm very pushy and stubborn, so we kept working through it and we eventually took it to the board. It was a really wonderful board meeting because the woman who defended it from the trustees' point of view was David Rockefeller's daughter Peggy Dulany. She talked about why it was important for foundations to get involved in big problems like this.
What did the Rockefeller Foundation do to help launch IAVI?
The concept of public-private partnerships in the health area really hadn't gone very far by the early '90s. The foundation really believed having a private sector point of view was critical to what they were doing. Veteran biotech venture capitalist Paul Klingenstein was working with the foundation then because they were trying to bring in private-sector people to think about how that might intersect with what was going on.
But it was clear with this particular problem that one needed to bring the public and private sectors together to solve it, so we began the process of trying to think through that. The foundation was supportive of it as a big concept, but also was quite concerned and cautious about doing it because it was a new area. So we did a very thorough workup of the issues around it - holding meetings, putting out reports, getting consensus from a large number of people - before we finally launched it. And the foundation's role in all of this was to be the convener and to finance this. That allowed two things: the flexibility to do it, and the credibility that allowed it to happen. If I had been convening this as Seth Berkley, I would not have been able to do it, but convening it as the Rockefeller Foundation, I was able to bring people to the table.
Tell me about the big research meeting in 1994 at Rockefeller's Bellagio Study and Conference Center in northern Italy.
That meeting was described by Science magazine as the most important and diverse meeting that had ever been held on AIDS vaccines, but it was more than researchers. We brought in U.N. agencies and the World Bank. We also brought some biotech companies and government officials. We tried to bring in a broad cross-section of stakeholders and ask whether there was a problem. …