Birmingham biotech startups TriAltus Bioscience and AerBetic talk next steps after Alabama Launchpad win

Birmingham, Alabama Launchpad winner, TriAltus Bioscience, Innovation Depot, UAB

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Birmingham, Alabama Launchpad winner, TriAltus Bioscience, Innovation Depot, UAB
TriAltus Bioscience founders Dmitry Vassylyev (left) and Bob Shufflebarger at Innovation Depot. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

The Alabama Launchpad Startup Competition, a program of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA), puts serious cash into serious Alabama startups. Find out what innovations November’s winners, TriAltus Bioscience and AerBetic, two Birmingham-based biotech companies, are bringing our way. Plus, learn how you can apply for the 2019 Cycle 1 competition. (Hurry because the January 3 deadline is fast approaching.)

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The innovation that led to TriAltus Bioscience began at UAB. Photo via uab.edu

TriAltus Bioscience: $100,000 seed-stage winner

The big idea: streamline production of purified proteins to serve researchers and the biotech industry.

The Inspiration

“Proteins are the center of the universe, in life science terms. Enzymes, hormones, antibodies, hemoglobin, collagen—these are all made of proteins. And they do all the work—maintenance, defense, transport, reproduction. All processes taking place in a living organism have proteins acting somewhere.” 

Bob Shufflebarger, co-founder and CEO and Trialtus Bioscience, in a November 2017 speech delivered to Innovate Birmingham

Today, most drugs are made of proteins or are designed to work on proteins. Right now, as reported by Bham Now, the Birmingham-based research organization Southern Research is working on protein-based drug discovery.

So it might surprise you to learn that five years ago, Dmitry Vassylyev, a professor at UAB, found himself grappling with the same issue researchers have for 50 years—access to sufficient quantities of purified proteins. He decided to find a better way. Being a crystallographer, someone who grows crystals of ultra-pure proteins to understand them, he was uniquely qualified to solve the problem.

Vassylyev and his research team found the solution and published a paper on it. Bob Shufflebarger, who’s worked with life science companies for the past 25 years, read about it on UAB News.

Birmingham, Alabama Launchpad winner, TriAltus Bioscience, Innovation Depot, UAB
Molecular structure of calnexin chaperone protein, one of the challenging proteins Vassylyev’s UAB team purified using a new, streamlined method. Image via Wikimedia Commons

“I realized there was a business to be made founded on this technology platform,” Shufflebarger said. “So I reached out to UAB’s technology transfer office, and we began negotiating a license so we could commercialize it.”

The name TriAltus comes from the Latin for “triple high,” referring to high yield, high purity and high activity—the holy grail of protein purification achieved by Vassylyev and his research team at UAB.

Alabama Roots

Vassylyev earned his PhD in Moscow in 1989, then moved to Japan in 1992. Finally, he settled in Birmingham in 2005 to become a professor in UAB’s department of biochemistry and molecular genetics.

Shufflebarger is a Birmingham entrepreneur who, for the last 16 years, has worked with another UAB licensee.

The TriAltus Bioscience lab calls Innovation Depot in Birmingham home.

Birmingham, Alabama Launchpad winner, TriAltus Bioscience, bob Shufflebarger, Dmitry VassylyevInnovation Depot, UAB
Shufflebarger and Vassylyev at Innovation Depot. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

For the Win

Shufflebarger was an Alabama Launchpad Startup Competition judge in 2013, and an Alabama Launchpad coach before that. However, as a competitor, he still had valuable lessons to learn.

“It was surprisingly beneficial. Having been an Alabama Launchpad judge before, I thought I knew how to go about this. But when I gave my first submission, I realized, based on the feedback, there were things that either I left out or that I did not explain well and needed refinement.

“That feedback helped us in seeking investors and customers because the story you tell to Launchpad judges is essentially the story that you tell investors and often customers.”

Shufflebarger

Next Steps

TriAltus Bioscience has attracted 15 customers without much marketing. Next steps, following the $100,000 Alabama Launchpad win, include continuing to transfer production capability to the lab at Innovation Depot and executing marketing plans to attract new customers.

To date, TriAltus Bioscience has been selling the tool to “do-it-yourselfers” who purify proteins in their own labs. “Beginning next year, we will use the technology to produce proteins and sell them to researchers,” Shufflebarger said.

AerBetic: $50,000 concept-stage winner

The big idea: a wearable, non-invasive gas sensor that alerts those with diabetes when their blood glucose levels are high or low. 

From left: AerBetic founders Eric Housh, Arnar Thors and Matthew Fitzgerald. Photo via EDPA

The Inspiration

“We know people who have kids who suffer from type 1 diabetes, and we see the difficulties and the anxiety it creates. So we wanted to make a solution for that.”

Arnar Thors, AerBetic

When a person with diabetes experiences a hypo- or hyperglycemic event, it causes small changes in the chemical composition of their breath. From across the room, a diabetic alert dog can sense those changes and warn them.

Now imagine a non-invasive, wearable gas sensor that can do the same thing, down to the parts per billion. That’s AerBetic. While it doesn’t replace blood glucose testing yet, it can be a vital alert system.

The device combines gas sensor technology—licensed from AerNos of California and modified by AerBetic—with software algorithms and artificial intelligence.

Like the ultra-sensitive nose of a dog, an AerBetic sensor can pick up small changes in a person’s breath. Photo by Lauren Bedford for Bham Now

Alabama Roots

AerBetic evolved from Fitz-Thors Engineering Inc. based in Birmingham, which provides robotic solutions, factory automation, product development and manufacturing services. Founders Matthew Fitzgerald, PE, and Arnar Thors are alumni of the University of Alabama College of Engineering.

Rounding out the AirBetic team is Eric Housh. He earned his biology degree from Birmingham-Southern College and his MBA from Arizona State University. He’s spent most of his professional career working in marketing in high tech, including a stint at Intel Corp.

For the Win

TriAltus Bioscience, AerBetic, Alabama Launchpad Startup Competition winners. Photo via EDPA
From left: Shufflebarger of TriAltus Bioscience and Housh and Thors of AerBetic at the November 2018 Alabama Launchpad Startup Competition. Photo via EDPA

To get ready for the Alabama Launchpad Startup Competition, AerBetic did their due diligence, trying to shoot holes in their own pitch. So they were well prepared for the judges’ feedback. Still, going through the competition helped them with fine tuning.

“The Launchpad process helped us challenge the assumptions we had about our go-to-market strategy.” 

Housh

During the process, AerBetic received grant funding from the AIMtech medical device division of Southern Research, managed by Stacey Kelpke, PhD, which helped AerBetic develop an early prototype. “So we definitely owe those guys our gratitude as well,” Housh said.

Next Steps

AerBetic will reveal its product at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas the second week of January 2019, where they will share a booth with AerNos.

“The booth currently ranks no. 1 out of over 4,000 Consumer Electronics Show exhibitors, so we’ll have quite a bit of attention.”

Thors

The $50,000 prize from Alabama Launchpad will help cover AerBetic’s CES expenses as well as legal fees and structuring for the next round of fundraising.

Apply by January 3

Alabama Launchpad Startup Competition, 2019 Cycle 1

Does your startup have what it takes to compete for the $50,000 concept prize or the $100,000 seed funding prize? Apply by January 3 for the 2019 Cycle 1 Alabama Launchpad Startup Competition, a program of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA).

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