Name: Protea Biosciences
Unique Technology: micro-fluidics-based protein separation combined with ESI-TOF and a focus on signal transduction pathways associated with ovarian cancer
Business Plan: partnerships with pharma to develop diagnostic markers and small molecule drug targets
Hailing from Morgantown, West Virginia, month-old startup Protea Biosciences hopes to be the first proteomics company to bring biotech fame to this college town.
Founded by six West Virginia University (WVU) professors and a local venture capitalist, Protea is focusing on applying microfluidics technology to the high-throughput separation of proteins with potential as diagnostic markers or targets for small molecule drugs. Although the company is still closing its preliminary round of venture capital financing, Protea already has several potential protein targets identified in WVU labs that the founders hope to commercialize.
Protea’s current technology portfolio includes ESI-TOF mass spectrometry; microfluidics techniques developed in the lab of Aaron Timperman, an associate professor of chemistry at WVU; a databank of tissues collected by Barbara Ducatman, the chair of the department of pathology at WVU; and potential targets in a signal transduction pathway associated with ovarian cancer, said Dan Flynn, an associate professor of microbiology at WVU and member of the company’s scientific board.
“We have a focus on ovarian cancer, and we have cell lines that we’ve evaluated and a bank of tissues,” said Flynn. “We’re developing [assays] to look at the profile of proteins and the activation of specific signaling pathways.”
The impetus for the company’s founding came from an $11 million grant that WVU researchers received from NIH to help fund its cancer research and microfluidics technology development, Flynn said. The microfluidics device developed in Timperman’s lab, Flynn added, “is much faster and more sensitive than current technology” such as 2D gels and liquid chromatography-based approaches.
To bind this academic research together and apply it to proteomics, Flynn and the other university scientists on Protea’s scientific advisory board teamed up with Stephen Turner, a general partner of Frederick, Md.-based venture capital firm Origins, who helped found BRL and Clinomics Biosciences, two biotechnology companies based in Maryland. Turner met with Flynn and other WVU researchers earlier this year, and decided to provide the initial seed money, according to Flynn. “It was just a case of the stars all [being] in the right place,” he said. “We all just came together and met at the right time.”
Turner, who serves as the company’s president and CEO, was not immediately available for comment.
Protea plans to earn revenue by developing its candidate diagnostic markers and drug targets in partnership with pharmaceutical companies, Flynn said. “It’d be your standard approach of screening combinatorial libraries in partnership with companies and looking for lead compounds.”
Although Protea is perhaps the only biotechnology company located in Morgantown, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, which operates a generic drug manufacturing facility in the city, has provided strategic advice to Protea, Flynn said. WVU is also taking steps to make Morgantown an attractive location for biotech startups, such as providing incubator space and recruiting faculty with research interests related to biotechnology applications, he added.
The company currently has a staff of three, in addition to the five academic founders and Turner, and has plans to grow to 10 employees by the spring. Protea’s laboratory facilities are currently located on the WVU campus.