CAS Alumni Entrepreneurs are rooted in their UAB education
By Gail Allyn Short
Stephen Brossette, M.D., Ph.D.At UAB, New Orleans native Stephen Brossette found just what he was looking for — an opportunity to participate in the Medical Scientist Training Program, a combined M.D./Ph.D. program that prepares students for careers as physician researchers. For his doctorate, he opted to enroll in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences (CIS). He completed his CIS studies in 1998 and finished medical school at UAB in 1999.
While working on one research project, Brossette decided to gather data on hospital infection rates and soon realized that mining databases to analyze hospital records was a more accurate way to track the spread of infections and antibiotic resistance in hospitals and communities.
It wasn’t long before Brossette’s data-mining research caught the attention of a company that wanted to commercialize it. But he saw the offer as confirmation that he could go into business for himself.
So in 2000, he co-founded MedMined Inc. with Patrick Hymel and G. T. LaBoede. The company used patented data-mining techniques to efficiently identify and report infection outbreaks to the public and provide opportunities for hospitals to change their processes to prevent future infections.
“The growth was hard won,” he says “A lot of people look at the story of MedMined and think, wow, this company was an overnight success, but it wasn’t. There was nothing about it that felt like an overnight success. There were three of us that started the company, and we worked for years before we turned the corner to really become a successful business.”
In 2006, when Cardinal Health bought MedMined, Brossette stayed on as vice president for three years. But during that period, he and his original business partners began brainstorming ideas for a new business. They discussed misidentification of medications, the difficulties some patients have in keeping track of all of them and how technology could help.
They came up with an app that could capture the images of several pills at one time and match them against images in a database of more than 4,000 medications. The app, Brossette says, would give doctors, nurses, and pharmacists a way to identify a patient’s different medications within seconds. Moving forward with their idea, the team founded MedSnap LLC in 2009.
MedSnap is now marketing the technology, MedScan ID, to hospitals and insurers. Earlier this year, Brossette and his team introduced the MedScan ID to a group of UAB physician assistant students in the School of Health Professions so they could try it out.
Brossette, who is the chief science officer for MedSnap, says he and his business partners are now in the process of designing an app that will let patients and caregivers snap a picture of medications that need identification from home.
Larry DeLucas, O.D., Ph.D.Former astronaut and UAB professor of optometry Larry DeLucas, O.D., Ph.D., earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from UAB in 1972 and 1974 respectively. “The reason I ended up majoring in chemistry was due to the faculty I interacted with in the chemistry department,” DeLucas says. “In particular, I worked during the summer for Dr. Thomas St. Pierre who was a polymer chemist on the chemistry department faculty. He really gave me the confidence to believe that I could be successful as a scientist.”
A native of Syracuse, DeLucas continued his education at UAB with a second bachelor’s degree in physiological optics in 1979, followed by an optometry degree in 1981 and a doctorate in biochemistry in 1982. He later taught optometry courses at UAB and conducted studies on x-ray protein crystallography, a technology used to examine the structure of proteins, which is important for developing new drugs. By 1985, DeLucas was director of the purification and crystallization laboratory and associate director of the UAB Center for Macromolecular Crystallography.
Then in 1992, DeLucas became the first optometrist to go into space when he orbited the earth for 13 days aboard the space shuttle Columbia as a NASA payload specialist. The idea to start a business came, DeLucas says, while he was trying to build technologies to NASA’s specifications so he could send experiments on future space shuttles. He hired a staff of engineers to help him build protein crystallization hardware that would meet NASA’s flight hardware standards.
“Having engineers around me who could design and fabricate prototype hardware using the UAB research machine shop helped me develop new biotechnologies. [That] led me to consider forming a company to commercialize the technologies,” says DeLucas, who also directs the UAB Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering (CBSE). DeLucas, who became CBSE director in 1994, launched Diversified Scientific Inc., in 1997. The company licensed some of his technologies for protein crystallization through UAB’s Research Foundation (UABRF).
Diversified spawned other spin-off companies such as the 2007 biotech venture Vivo Biosciences Inc., that uses a proprietary human-based media to culture cells, grow three-dimensional tissue and perform biological assays. DeLucas’ newest company, Soluble Therapeutics Inc, was established in 2009. It licensed from the UABRF a protein solubility technology developed by DeLucas, members of the CBSE, and Dr. William Wilson, a colleague from Mississippi State University. The technology has applications in fundamental protein research and protein therapeutics such as vaccine development. So far, DeLucas has registered more than 30 patents.
“I think that in science it’s really important that you work hard, but you want to also be innovative,” he says. “You want to always be thinking of solutions to problems. What’s a better way to do something?’”
David Graves, Ph.D.David Graves, Ph.D., is both an alumnus and the chair of the Department of Chemistry. The Gardendale, Alabama, native entered UAB as an undergraduate student in 1970. Influenced by his physical chemistry professor, Dr. Charles Watkins, Graves found himself well prepared by his mentor. “I’ve been doing physical biochemistry for about 30 years as a professor, so that course put me on the track that I have made a career out of in terms of my research.”
While in school, Graves worked part-time in the UAB Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology reproductive endocrinology laboratory, which he says helped influence his decision to earn a doctorate degree in biochemistry.
After earning his Ph.D., Graves completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Rochester. He accepted a job as a tenure-track assistant professor at the University of Mississippi in 1984, where he taught chemistry for 20 years, eventually reaching the role of Distinguished Faculty Fellow in 2002.
His plan was to retire at the University of Mississippi, Graves says, but he started getting inquiries from individuals at UAB about returning to his alma mater to become chair of the chemistry department — stepping in for Larry Krannich, Ph.D., who was retiring.
After accepting the chairmanship in 2003, one of his major areas of focus was exploring ways to enhance chemistry faculty collaborations with researchers across campus on projects involving drug discovery, biophysical chemistry, and structural biology, and to conduct basic science investigations that could dovetail into translational research — taking basic science research to the clinical setting — that was taking place at UAB.
Graves became a senior scientist with the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center and eventually teamed with two center researchers, Katri Selander, M.D., Ph.D., and Kevin Harris, M.D., to develop a blood test that could tell doctors within hours whether a particular chemotherapy treatment was working. The test had the potential to save cancer patients from undergoing repeated rounds of chemotherapy before a clinical determination could be made on whether the patient’s tumor was shrinking.
The group consulted with the UAB Research Foundation in applying for a patent on the extracellular telomere assay. In 2011, they launched Blondin Biosciences to further develop the assay.
Operating in the business world required a new set of skills, and Graves and his partners took advantage of classes offered through the Birmingham Business Alliance and Innovation Depot, UAB’s business incubator. There they learned the fundamentals of developing a business plan, ways to pitch their product to potential investors, and how to convey the science behind the blood test in layman’s terms.
A year later, Blondin Biosciences was a finalist in the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama’s Alabama Launchpad competition, providing a real-world, working example of UAB’s brand: ”Knowledge that will change your world.” The group is now working to refine proof-of-concept and refine the diagnostic test while at the same time securing funding for their business.
Theresa Harper Bruno, M.A.When Orlando, Florida, native Theresa Harper Bruno chose to study history at UAB, she was at a career crossroads. She previously had studied at the Juilliard School of Music with dreams of becoming a concert pianist, but she was forced to consider other options when the arduous, 10-hour-a-day practices injured her hand.
Bruno set out to find an occupation where she could still be both creative and practical. She returned to Birmingham, where she had strong family ties, chose advertising and marketing, and later became the advertising director for Regions Bank. She then spent 10 years as a creative director and partner at the Birmingham-based marketing and public relations firm Perry, Harper & Perry, which opened in 1989. Meanwhile she had enrolled at UAB to pursue a master’s degree in history, she says.
“I felt that I was under-educated outside of the arts,” she says, “and I was also considering going to law school at the time. I liked the Women’s Studies program and the personal attention by the professors.”
Bruno received her master of arts degree from UAB in 1990. She continued working in advertising. Then in 2005, Bruno opened her own firm, Theresa Harper Bruno Inc., a holding company offering services such as strategic planning and consulting and film production.
Bruno says that she had always dabbled in design over the years, and soon she began creating her own line of jewelry using pearls and other precious stones.
In 2010, she launched Jordan Alexander Jewelry, and the success of the line was almost immediate. Not long after the launch, her pieces were featured in The New York Times. Then she got a call from the White House saying that First Lady Michelle Obama planned to wear some of her jewelry to a state dinner. Today her jewelry is sold in 40 luxury stores around the country, and now she is introducing a line of furniture, she says.
“I’m a creator by heart,” she says. “It’s just sort of in the genes. It’s a creative bent and a drive to really run hard in business.”
These days, when she is not traveling to promote her furniture and jewelry, she is active in supporting and promoting UAB’s Alys Robinson Stephens Performing Arts Center. She is chair of the ASC Corporate Board, and says getting to meet some of the artists who have come to perform at the ASC has been a joy. “It’s like I got the best gift in the world,” she says.
Bruno has now taken on a new role as co-chair of UAB’s recently announced comprehensive, philanthropic campaign to raise $1 billion by the end of 2018, which will be the largest fundraising campaign in UAB’s history.
“Raising these funds is going to make a huge difference not only for UAB, but for all of Alabama,” she says. “I’m truly and honestly so humbled to have been asked to do this work.”
David Brasfield, B.S.When David Brasfield was a freshman at UAB, he thought medicine was his destiny. But he soon concluded that pre-med was not for him and turned his attention to the emerging field of computer science.
“Computer science wasn’t a big thing back in the 1980s, when desktop computers were in their infancy,” he says. “So the degree was fairly new, but I hopped in and liked the curriculum so much that I decided to change my major to computer science. I didn’t possess a crystal ball back then and didn’t foresee the explosion of computing technology that would produce PCs, iPads, cell phones, and mobile devices. But I did see that a computer could take lots of data and give us results very quickly.
“UAB was a great school because it had some of the newer technologies, and at that time, the program was just starting. It wasn’t like computer science had been out there for years like it is today,” he says.
Brasfield gained work experience at the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta, and after graduating from UAB with a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 1984, he took a computer-programming job with NCR Corp. Then, in 1989, Brasfield decided to start his own software business, SBS Corp., to service financial institutions.
“ It was both exciting and scary,” Brasfield says. “When you have a good job that you like doing, it’s hard to leave it and strike out on your own. But I felt I could go do that myself, and the timing was good.”
About a year later, Brasfield moved the company into UAB’s former business incubator, the Office for the Advancement of Developing Industries (OADI), and took advantage of the classes and resources that were offered to new entrepreneurs.
“It was a great opportunity for a small businessperson to have full access to a variety of well-known experts in these different fields,” Brasfield says.
He launched his second company, Brasfield Technology, in 2001, after selling SBS Corp. Just four years later, in 2005, he sold Brasfield Technologies to the Metavante Corp. He opened his third firm, TriNovus, in 2009. Through TriNovus, Brasfield offered financial institutions the resources needed to help them comply with new federal rules. Last year, he soldTriNovus to a Swiss company.
His advice for students interested in starting their own businesses? “The hardest part is just doing it,” he says. “But know that if it doesn’t work out, you always have another direction you can follow, but if you don’t try, you’ll never know if you can do it.”