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Science Alumni Profiles: Excelimmune Co-Founders Quinton Zondervan '92 and Vincent Coljee '90

posted on 01/04/2010


by Mary Ellen Collins

Quinton Zondervan '92 and Vincent Coljee '90 could not have imagined that forging a friendship over a chess board at Eckerd would be the beginning of a relationship that would lead to co-founding Excelimmune, an innovative biotechnology start-up.

Quinton, who was born in the Netherlands and grew up in Suriname until moving to St. Petersburg at fifteen, initially pictured himself becoming a laboratory scientist.

"I spent most of my spare time in high school messing around with Apple computers and learning how to program them. I was convinced I was going to be a scientist and computers would be just a hobby but it's turned out to be the other way around. When I signed up [at Eckerd], I wrote down chemistry as my major, but I took an autumn term with Mark Fishman on artificial intelligence and it blew my mind. I thought, 'I was born to do this.' It just clicked, and I changed my major to computer science."

For Vincent, who was born in British Columbia to Dutch parents and lived all over the world, the desire to become a molecular biologist began fairly early.

"At the age of 14, I was in the library and picked up a book on recombinant DNA. I read it and determined that this is what I would do. I figured that DNA is the basis of all life, so if I started from that point, I could move up from there."
Vincent majored in chemistry at Eckerd, where he and his roommate started a chess club, which is where he met Quinton. The two Dutch students not only became very close friends, but also were instrumental in making the Eckerd community more environmentally conscious.

"People had tried, unsuccessfully, to initiate recycling on campus," says Vincent. "I unilaterally decided that we should get it done. I recruited Quinton into this, and he became the champion of it. My diplomatic skills are lacking, and Q was instrumental in getting the administration to become more responsive, and he was more savvy about creating coalitions to keep it going."

After graduation, the two kept in touch as they pursued separate professional journeys. Quinton got a master's in computer science at MIT and spent four and a half years as a software engineer for LOTUS (IBM). Clickmarks, a software start-up, recruited him to become their chief technology officer, where he oversaw software development, started a Boston branch office, and managed "the most difficult engineers to manage." He then returned to IBM for several years as a senior software engineer.

Vincent earned a Ph.D. at the Medical College of Pennsylvania; did a post-doc in pharmacology at Boston University Medical School; and began to collaborate with people at Harvard on biophysics projects. He went to work for a Danish start-up in Boston, and moved when the company relocated to Denmark. Thanks to the company's vacation policy, he made regular trips to continue working with his Harvard colleagues and to visit Quinton in Boston. By 2005, it was time for Vincent and Quinton's professional paths to intersect.

"I was disillusioned with being at a big company [IBM] and having very little control over my role," says Quinton. "I heard a lot of frustration from Vincent and a lot of ideas he wanted to develop." So Vincent returned to the states, and the two started Excelimmune, a company that makes human recombinant antibodies, taking immunity from one person and using it to treat others.

At Excelimmune, Quinton is the CEO and Vincent is the Chief Scientific Officer. Their complementary skill sets enable them to move the company toward achieving its goals of creating new therapies to treat disease.

"I do everything except the science," says Quinton. "Raising money, building partnerships, media relations, human resources, maintaining computers, and writing software that the scientists use to do their work. I even take out the trash if it starts to pile up. It takes deep expertise in biology to do the science, so I cannot contribute directly to that, but I keep the company running so they can do the science. I feel very satisfied because I'm directly enabling the scientific progress we make."

Vincent, who is also a Harvard Fellow, keeps Excelimmune's ten research scientists on track and handles the recruitment and hiring of new scientific team members.

"I have the experience, intellect and enthusiasm to drive the scientific focus," he says. "Work is still in the animal study stages, years away from human trials. It's something that's a long process ... we have the capability to create a whole new class of therapeutics that doesn't exist yet. Excelimmune has the real potential to help people who cannot be cured by current medicine."

Eckerd College provided the backdrop for successful partnership between two young men who share an affinity for chess and a passion for science. And the new Center for Molecular and Life Sciences will surely offer the opportunity for similar collaborations to new generations of Eckerd students.

"The interdisciplinary approach is what makes Eckerd special. You can reach across the artificial boundaries we throw up," says Vincent. "A lot of the new developments we're going to see come from combining different areas of science - physics and chemistry, software and biology. At Eckerd, someone in the physics department can go across the hall and talk to a chemistry professor. There will be room for people to learn across disciplines and I think that's tremendously valuable. The people you meet along the way are the most important assets you have. If you can put brains together, you can really do amazing things."

This feature is the sixth of a series of profiles of Eckerd alumni and friends who embody the emphasis of the Sciences at Eckerd College. Learn more about the Many Experiences, One Spirit: The Campaign for Eckerd College and the Center for Molecular and Life Sciences, a Campaign priority.

Read Previous Science Profiles:
Carlos Barbas '85
Paul Cheney '69
Harry Johns '90
Patrick Griffin
Jeffrey Dodge '84

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