Oaklander Naveen Jain may have stumbled on a groundbreaking idea:  Anyone can be a superhero. Because instead of super-speed or impossible strength, these heroes can beat the deadliest virus on planet Earth. HIV controllers, the 1 in 300 people who have a natural immunity to HIV, are the closest we’ll get to comic books, Naveen says. With The Immunity Project, a bio-medical start-up, he wants to give that “biological superpower” to the world, using controller genes to make a free, effective HIV vaccine.

Naveen co-founded The Immunity Project with Dr. Reid Rubsamen, an anesthesiologist and founder of the drug delivery company Flow Pharma, who was working in the operation room the day Naveen’s daughter was born. “It’s pretty easy to remember that day,” Naveen laughs. Rubsamen introduced Naveen to the idea of HIV controllers, did all the lab work, and then  brainstormed with him how to bring the results from Petri dishes to patients.

Naveen was used to thinking big as CEO of  SparkArt, a digital agency that usually works with rockstars and sports teams. He studied computer engineering in college before dropping out, but the idea of reverse engineering, disassembling, always stuck with him. “By taking apart something that already works,” like the genes of HIV controllers, he says, “you can work backwards to find out how it works.” Naveen was hooked.

It’s ambitious to go after an HIV vaccine,  the “unicorn” of medicine says Naveen, but it’s even more ambitious to give it away for free. “I’m a problem solver,” Naveen explains, “it’s just the way I think. When I see the cities and countries where HIV is spreading, in places of extraordinary poverty, it’s clear to me the vaccine has to be free to solve the problem.” Simple as that.

Naveen says it’s worth keeping things in perspective, the thirty-five million people living with HIV/AIDS, the 4,000 plus people who die each day, and understanding the magnitude of this loss. “Imagine ten 747s falling out of the sky everyday,” Naveen says. “It’s a crisis.”                  

                                   Screenshot-2014-02-18-23.16.49 01-controller
The Immunity Project does not pretend to have all the answers, and is careful not to label their research as a “cure.” But Naveen says he believes help doesn’t always have to come from big companies showing goodwill. That’s where, he says, they can be truly disruptive, not just a noisy non-profit. “Scientists spend 40%of their time fundraising,” Naveen says, and the inefficiency is frustrating. “Scientists don’t want to be politicians.”

By working outside the world of the FDA, they want to avoid big pharma deal-making and get noticed. “Getting a government grant is like winning the lottery,” Naveen said. “We don’t have that kind of time.”

So how do you amplify a science experiment? In February, The Immunity Project turned to crowdfunding to start a phase 1 of a human trial, and raised over $462,000. This money will go towards essentials, everything from test animals to equipment like a flow cytometer, but it’s still a shoestring budget. “You can’t kick back just because you’re crowdfunding,” Naveen says. “It’s all about hustle.”

Naveen helped make The Immunity Project, on a mission to “hack HIV,” go viral. They pooled resources and partnered with seed accelerators like Y Combinator and Microsoft, but the campaign also took some unexpected, and rather agile, turns. Mobile gift card app Gyft ran a “Shop to #HackHIV” drive during its peak holiday-shopping season, and donated up to 100% of purchases to the project.

They also teamed up with mobile game company A Thinking Ape, and collected proceeds from virtual goods (“Health Crystals” and “Doctor’s Notes”) in two games.  This tactic raised over $40,000 in a single weekend, and this Oakland-base experiment got off the ground.

Still, Naveen admits The Immunity Project is still very “blue sky,” and it’s a big “if” working with a vaccine. Pace can be hard to predict, especially with  unknowns and the big, fat brick wall of FDA-approval up ahead. For Naveen, it comes back to the problem-solving mindset. “If you’re thinking about speed,” Naveen says, “you’re got more pressure, and freedom in some ways, to think creatively and find solutions.”

In this way, The Immunity Project hopes to “cut a path” for open science, which puts a value on transparency throughout the trial process. Above all, Naveen believes the “scrappy” team deserves a shot. “Someone will learn from what we’re doing,” Naveen says, “you can’t deny the approach has merit. Let’s see what we can do.” In the coming months, their team will run experiments with human blood to see if the cells produce an immune response like HIV controllers.

Naveen says Oakland is a good home for out-of-the-ordinary thinking. The city goes its own way.”People forget that,” he says. “There’s an ethos of do-ers, who don’t care about the limelight shining on them.” In the end, funding and testing a vaccine isn’t about notoriety, it’s about doing whatever’s possible to fight back against an epidemic.

Of the 10,000 men and women living with HIV/AIDS in Alameda County, Naveen says, over 50% are in Oakland. Against the odds, he and the Immunity Project are making the message loud and clear: Now’s a time for heroes.