How is a research scientist like a tech entrepreneur? They’re more similar than you might think. They begin with a great idea, they need resources to test, improve and refine their prototype, and they want to find investors who believe in their dream. If they’re lucky — if it all comes together — their scrappy startup becomes a successful company.
That said, Ingrid Swanson Pultz, PhD ’12, didn’t set out to create a biotech startup. Rather, the grad student in microbiology just wanted to take part in a science competition called iGEM, and she started a team. Just three years later, her team of undergrad students won — the first Americans to take the prize. They used protein design software to engineer KumaMax, an enzyme that breaks down gluten in the stomach and prevents an immune response in people with celiac disease.
Soon, the students graduated, but Pultz — now a postdoc researcher — didn’t want their work to gather dust. Then she learned about UW Medicine’s Institute for Protein Design (IPD), a research institute that supports innovation in protein design by launching new entrepreneurs. And, with the IPD’s help, she decided to make the team’s idea a reality.
“This was such a great project for protein design, and it came from the students,” says Pultz. “They had friends with celiac disease, so they were interested in building a therapeutic for it, and that was really the birth of the idea that later became the focus of my company.”
Led by David Baker, PhD, the IPD brings together faculty, researchers and partners from the computing and biotechnology industries. Together, they develop projects that use computer-designed proteins to solve a range of medical challenges, including next-generation vaccines for diseases like HIV and cancer, better methods to deliver drugs to the body, and engineered molecules that can block infection and neutralize toxins. Some of these projects involve translational investigators — researchers who turn scientific discoveries into medical treatments.
“We’re pretty selective in funding only the most promising projects, like KumaMax,” says Lance Stewart, PhD, the IPD’s chief strategy and operations officer. “So far, everything we’ve funded has resulted in a new company.”
Once a project is launched, the IPD becomes a home for the translational investigators. For Pultz and co-founder Justin Siegel, PhD, that meant lab space, equipment, supplies and a research scientist to help turn KumaMax into a marketable product. They used protein design software to further tweak their modified enzyme and developed better tests to measure how efficiently it was intercepting and breaking down gluten.
A little over two years and many design iterations later, KumaMax was ready. Having secured a partnership deal with Takeda Pharmaceuticals, Pultz and Siegel created a startup, PvP Biologics, to refine their production methods and bring their enzyme into phase I clinical trials. The next step is to sell PvP to a company with the resources to conduct larger clinical trials and bring the treatment to market as a pharmaceutical.
“We had a lot of support from the IPD,” says Pultz. “As a grad student, you don’t learn how to develop a pitch deck for investors, how to submit intellectual property or the legal ramifications of starting a company. All of that was new, and we were struggling to figure it out, but the IPD’s goal is to help you succeed.”
Today, Pultz and PvP — and similar IPD-supported businesses, such as Neuoleukin Therapeutics — are starting to give back to the IPD as a way of thanking the institute for the help they were provided. They’re doing so by donating shares in their company. Stewart appreciates the generosity.
“With our translational investigators, the IPD has an opportunity to help launch an entirely new industry, where proteins can be designed as therapeutics,” says Stewart. “But a new industry needs capital, so it’s very generous for founders like Ingrid to make gifts that support the IPD’s vision for the future of protein design.”
As for Pultz, she feels fortunate that KumaMax is making it possible for her to give back to fellow researchers as they develop their own groundbreaking treatments.
“Science isn’t predictable; there’s a certain amount of luck to it,” says Pultz. “That’s why I feel very lucky to be in a position to have a positive impact on other projects at the IPD.”