Harmar startup sees potential in tech that could turn paint into toxin detector
November 8, 2016 12:00 AM
From left, Alan Russell, Antonina Simakova and Krzsztof Matyjaszewski at Carnegie Mellon University's Scott Hall. Russell, Simakova and Matyjaszewski have spun out a company from Carnegie Mellon University, which is commercializing a way to manipulate and beef up proteins for use in various industrial and medical applications.
By Kris B. Mamula / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Technology that could help create paint that can alert people to the presence of a toxin or packaging that changes color with the expiration date of the food inside clearly has potential on the commercial market.
And now two long-time collaborators from Carnegie Mellon University have launched a company designed to take the advancements made possible by polymer-based protein engineering, which was developed at the Pittsburgh university, and enable more companies to use them.
CMU professors Alan Russell and Krzysztof Matyjaszewski founded Biohybrid Solutions LLC, which employs three people and plans to set up office in Harmar Township.
Startup funding came from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Small Business Innovation Research grant of $150,000 and a subcontract from the U.S. Department of Defense for $140,000, which are the first funding rounds in a multi-phase project that has a total of $1.5 million available to the new company. Through the small business research program, the federal government funds projects that can lead to commercialization of a product.
The core of the Biohybrid Solutions business is polymer-based protein engineering — essentially a better way of combining proteins and polymers that was developed at CMU. The company aims to improve polymer-protein conjugation by simplifying and automating the process, while also more efficiently removing waste from the final product.
Proteins can be effective medicines in treating viral infections, cancers and immune disorders, which has attracted research money. Industry invested nearly $100 billion in research and development from 2011 to 2013, according to a 2015 study that appeared in the journal Expert Opinion on Drug Delivery. The result: 907 biotherapeutics in various phases of clinical trials, with most being protein biotherapeutics.
Pharmaceutical companies are likely to be Biohybrid Solutions’ biggest competitors, but no one uses Biohybrid’s patented technology, which “grows” polymers on the protein surface, rather than grafting polymers onto the protein molecule, the mainstay of protein engineering for 25 years.
Through Biohybrid’s engineering, the density, length and properties of the polymers can be controlled, making the proteins more stable and longer lasting. Ordinarily, proteins are unstable and short-lived, Mr. Russell said.
“It’s a busy space,” he said. “A lot of science has gone into making them industrial strength.”
In addition to the possibility of using proteins that are responsive to their environment, causing food packaging to change color after the expiration date or allow paint to respond in some way to the presence of a toxin in the room, Biohybrid’s technology may also have therapeutic applications in the treatment of cancer and other diseases, Mr. Russell said.
Biohybrid Solutions is the fourth biotech startup for Mr. Russell, who was the founding director of the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine and currently directs the Disruptive Health Technology Institute at CMU. His other biotech companies were ICX Agentase, NanoSembly LLC and O2Cyte LLC.
Mr. Matyjaszewski is a chemistry professor at Carnegie Mellon, where he founded and directs the Center for Macromolecular Engineering. He is a leading educator in the field of polymer chemistry and has 147 international patents and was co-inventor on 50 U.S. patents.
The two men helped pioneer the technology that made polymer-based protein combination possible about 10 years ago, which was perfected during the past three years. CMU created the Center for Polymer-Based Protein Engineering in 2015 with the two serving as the center’s co-directors.
Biohybrid will be located in Harmar next to Flir Detection Inc., a company that develops sensors that use enzymes. Jeremy Walker, who is manager, enzyme science and technology at Flir, said he anticipated collaborating with Biohybrid.
“There’s just a lot of synergies between the two companies,” Mr. Walker said. “We’ll just selectively chase opportunities together.”
Flir, which has 16 employees in Pittsburgh and 175 employees overall, focuses on real world uses for proteins and biological compounds. As part of the collaboration, the two companies will explore applications for polymer-protein hybrid materials and self-decontaminating protein fabrics for a Department of Defense project.
CMU has spun out more than 138 companies since 2009 and earlier this month the university launched the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship, which will be a hub for university-wide entrepreneurial activities.
A new generation of startups are pushing Pittsburgh to a turning point, reshaping an economy that was built on steel and later, medicine, according to CMU alum James Swartz, the center’s namesake and a founding partner of the global venture capital firm Accel Partners of Palo Alto, Calif. Among Accel’s investments are Facebook, Etsy and Dropbox.
In June, Mr. Swartz donated $31 million to open the entrepreneurial center, which will be located in the Tepper School of Business, part of the David A. Tepper Quadrangle. The 295,000-square-foot complex is under construction on Forbes Avenue.
At a reception to launch the Swartz Center in October, Mr. Swartz said the growing number of new companies was evidence of the city’s thriving startup economy.
“Pittsburgh is at an inflection point,” the 74-year-old Mr. Swartz said. “It’s really going to take hold.”
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