Communications Specialist, Iowa JPEC

The scene has played out many times. Frances Johnson turns toward her husband Michael Schultz, raises her hand, and smiles before they share a celebratory high-five.

It’s the reaction you get when years of hard work in a medical laboratory finally shows signs of paying off. For Johnson and Schultz, things are looking up for their company Viewpoint Molecular Targeting located in Iowa City, Iowa.

“This means a lot because often when you work for a long time to get something done, you are recognized more from afar than you are at home where they have seen you blocking, tackling, and slogging your way toward the goal,” said Johnson, Viewpoint’s CEO. “We have found Iowa City and the University of Iowa community to be a great place to start a business, to grow and build, and we have gotten a lot of support along the way.”

In February, Viewpoint announced that it had secured its own long-term supply of radioisotopes through the National Isotope Development Center. These unstable atoms are a necessary component in Viewpoint’s products, which use radioactivity to help physicians see and treat cancer cells. Most competitors rely on a third-party supplier for these isotopes, which can create a bottleneck.

After positive pretrial data, Viewpoint received acceptance of it first investigational new drug application by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There have been multiple successful human trials at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and they will be used soon at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC).

“That is a big celebration,” said Schultz, who serves as Chief Science Officer. “That is a huge step for a startup company in the biotech space in general. To make it into the clinic and enroll patients means that you have stepped through a series of important milestones to get to the point where the FDA says, yes, this looks like it is safe to go ahead. That is after developing a body of literature and data around what you are proposing.”

Johnson says she and Schultz are typical University of Iowa citizens of the world. She was born in Minneapolis, raised in the Pacific Northwest, and attended college and medical school at the University of Washington. She also made stops at University of California San Francisco and Stanford before heading to the University of Maryland to help with mechanical circulatory support.

Schultz was born in Chicago and raised in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. He attended multiple universities during his undergraduate years, finishing with a degree in Russian in the former Soviet Union. After a few years as a translator, he earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in oceanography with a focus on radiochemistry. He did graduate work at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where he met Johnson.

“I went back there and worked in the nuclear medicines standards program,” Schultz said. “That’s how I got connected with the kind of radio chemistry we use now for radio pharmaceuticals which is what the company develops.”

They came to Iowa City in 2006, where he joined the faculty in the radiology department, and she directed the cardiomyopathy treatment program at the UIHC.

The creation of Viewpoint essentially began with a phone call. Schultz laughs when getting more specific: back in the day when a phone sat on a desk and had a cord connected to a jack on the wall. A physician scientist wanted to use alpha particle radionuclide therapy to treat cancer and he was looking for Schultz and his experience working with the rare isotope.

“That was back around 2003 and that’s where it started,” Schultz said.

The company formally began in 2008 but “didn’t get the kind of legs” needed until 2015, when they participated in Iowa JPEC’s Faculty Innovators (NSF I-Corps) Workshop. Since then, Johnson and Schultz have transitioned away from their faculty roles to focus on growing the company. Viewpoint currently has 17 employees with a goal of 20 by the end of 2021.

What distinguishes Viewpoint from other companies is the fact it uses small peptides with low molecular weight and high solubility, so they quickly target a tumor and then the residual dose is excreted rapidly.

“People like to think about this when you combine elements into one drug as one thing having the targeting and the other is a payload,” Johnson said. 

That leads to the next phase of Viewpoint’s business model. It is now making a transition from being a preclinical research and development company to a true pharmaceutical company that develops drugs. Viewpoint has built collaborations all over the world to prepare for expanding its footprint but remains committed to building the foundation of the company in the Iowa City area. Many of the company’s fulltime employees started as interns while studying at the University of Iowa.

Viewpoint has overcome challenges every step of the way. Finding money was one, navigating the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 was another.

“We made it every time,” Schultz said.

“We did it,” Johnson added.

And that’s worthy of a celebratory high-five.

Viewpoint Molecular Targeting has received the Iowa Innovator of the Year Award in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Honors. The University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center will recognize Viewpoint on Oct. 8 at Hancher Auditorium.