Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

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June 20, 2012 | Tom Ballard

Knoxville start-up Provectus presenting at today’s “Invest Tennessee Equity Conference”

A local pharmaceutical start-up with a very promising cancer drug is one of 10 companies, including three Fortune 500 firms that will make presentations at today’s second annual “Invest Tennessee Equity Conference” in Nashville.

Provectus Pharmaceuticals, Inc. specializes in developing oncology and dermatology therapies including its novel PV-10 drug that is designed to selectively target and destroy cancer cells without harming the surrounding healthy tissue. The company’s specific cancer focus is on melanoma, breast cancer and metastatic cancers of the liver.

Craig Dees, the company’s Chief Executive Officer, will make today’s presentation. Provectus joins a blue ribbon set of presenters including three Tennessee Fortune 500 companies – FedEx Corporation (#70), International Paper Company (#111) and AutoZone Inc. (#320) – along with other well-known names like Regal Entertainment Group, Inc., and Miller Energy Resources, Inc.

Ahead of today’s event, Dees, sat down with to discuss the creation and evolution of the firm. The discussion was fast-paced and multi-faceted as the enthusiastic Dees discussed the work that he and two colleagues have been pursuing since their days at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) more than a decade ago.

His colleagues and company co-founders are Tim Scott, President, and Eric Wachter, Chief Technology Officer.

One clearly sees that Dees is extremely passionate about the team’s work and collective belief that the PV-10 drug will dramatically change the lives of people with melanoma, breast and liver cancers.

He explains that current approaches “don’t cure very well and they make people horribly sick . . . because we try to poison the cancers.” PV-10 is a drug that “kills only the sick stuff,” he says, adding that “the drug is out of normal tissue quickly,” something that he believes is extremely important.

“We’ve been working at it really hard for six years,” Dees says, and he expects the drug to be on the market within two to three years. His optimism is based on the fact Provectus has completed Phase 2 testing for metastatic melanoma and Phase 1 testing for both breast and liver cancers.

“We are now negotiating parameters of Phase 3 testing with the FDA (Food and Drug Administration),” Dees adds.

In addition to its PV-10 for cancer treatment, Provectus also has a PH-10 drug for dermatological use to treat atopic dermatitis and psoriasis. Phase 2 testing has been completed for both uses.

The manner in which Dees, Scott and Wachter became a team is typical of the serendipitous nature of entrepreneurship and discovery.

Dees notes ironically that the three were doctoral students at the University of Wisconsin at the same time and had offices “probably not 150 feet from each other.” Yet, it was not until they met later at ORNL that they found a common interest and saw that they had very complementary skills.

Dees has a doctorate in molecular virology, while Scott’s is in chemical engineering and Wachter’s in chemistry. Dees says that they “took a mixture of our skills” – a chemist, a biologist and a chemical engineer – and began to explore new opportunities.

“Our first patent was written on a wall at X-10,” he says, using the alpha numeric reference to ORNL. “That was probably alright, because the building leaked so much that the walls were repainted every month.”

The trio left ORNL and founded Photogen Technologies, Inc., to commercialize a multi-photon laser technology to treat cancer.

Dees recalls that the epiphany that led to the PV-10 and PH-10 drugs occurred on a Sunday night in Photogen’s Oak Ridge Highway laboratory. They were so enthused by the idea that they rushed to the Knoxville Airport and somehow convinced the security officials to let them run a lab sample through the X-ray machines to test their theory.

The results were exactly what their epiphany had predicted, and they immediately thought, “A cure for cancer was just reduced to practice at the airport.”

The new approach “obsoleted our laser technology that Sunday night,” Dees said, explaining that the trio had “come up with something better and cheaper.”

“We are very much a product of this area,” Dees says proudly. He admits that investors have tried to lure the company to other locations, but he has successfully resisted those attempts.

“There’s not a single advantage in moving to New York City,” Dees recalls telling one investor. He cited this region’s advantages as lower cost of living, better education systems, lower crime and research institutions like ORNL and the University of Tennessee.

“We have the core cadre right here,” he says.

With its plans to have product in the market within two to three years, Dees said Provectus will most likely outsource manufacturing and possibly other areas like marketing. Companies like Provectus are “good at innovation,” he adds.

And, in characteristic fashion, Dees started talking about other ideas that he has for patents in the future, saying about one that he’ll “write that down sometime.”

Ironically, Dees pursued a medical degree for a short period of time, but he admits that he found it “boring.” Today, he and his partners are pursuing what they believe is truly a cure for cancer.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: is a service of Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C. Some of the principals in the firm own stock in Provectus, which is a publicly-traded company.)

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