UAB biotech spinoff TriAltus hits stride at seed stage of growth

The fledgling company has lab space at Innovation Depot and sponsors contract research at UAB.

RS27713 Bob Shufflebarger 7 scr editedBob Shufflebarger, MBAIn July 2017, a UAB News story caught the eye of Birmingham life-sciences executive Bob Shufflebarger, MBA.

It described a novel protein purification system developed at the University of Alabama at Birmingham that appeared to meet the “Holy Grail” of protein purification — high-yield, high-purity and high-activity.

“It is potentially the most efficient and universal tool for high-throughput studies of many significant biological systems and may aid large-scale production of therapeutic proteins,” said Dmitry Vassylyev, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at UAB.

Shufflebarger sensed a commercial opportunity.

Nineteen months later, the UAB spinoff formed from this UAB intellectual property is off to a quick, seed-stage start. With technology licensed from UAB’s Bill L. Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, TriAltus Bioscience has:

  • Secured $1.6 million of seed-stage funding, enough for an 18-month runway. Most of this came from Alabama and Birmingham angel investors who want to see successful spinoffs from UAB, Shufflebarger says.
  • Moved into 2,000 square feet of space at Birmingham’s Innovation Depot, the largest tech startup program in the Southeast. The space has two rooms, one for testing and purification, and one for production.
  • Hired Ghalib Alkhatib, Ph.D., an adjunct professor at the UAB Department of Microbiology, as senior scientist and lab director. The company also has a part-time technician.
  • Won the seed-stage competition in November from Alabama Launchpad. This award comes with a check for $100,000, in addition to the publicity and credibility that comes with winning. Alabama Launchpad is the state’s most active early-stage seed fund investor.
  • Signed a sponsored research agreement with UAB to support Vassylyev’s UAB lab through contract research to continue development of the TriAltus technology and product line.
  • Sold protein purification materials to researchers in the United States, Brazil and six European Union countries. While dollar amounts are modest, an important goal at this point is for researchers to use the TriAltus product and write about their results. “They are our No. 1 source of validation and way to attract new customers,” Shufflebarger said.

TriAltus is led by co-founders Shufflebarger, the CEO, and Vassylyev, the chief scientific officer. UAB’s Bill L. Harbert Institute retains some equity in TriAltus, and the institute is entitled to royalty and milestone payments.      

SeedJoomla2Shufflebarger says the next 18 months will be a time to show proof of concept, do product launches and acquire new customers. Besides selling the purification system, TriAltus is beginning to purify proteins to sell for research use only. These include human growth hormone, granulocyte colony-stimulating factor, interferon alpha, vascular endothelial growth factor and fibroblast growth factor 1.

In his 2017 report on the purification system, Vassylyev said, “A notable illustration of the superior performance of the CL7/Im7 approach is that the calnexin protein sample, which we purified in a few hours and from only a few grams of E. coli cells, would have a market value of about $400,000, according to current commercial prices.”

Shufflebarger, who earned a chemistry degree at Birmingham-Southern College and an MBA at Duke University, is now at his fifth Birmingham-based life science company. He noted that a recent Burning Glass study of workforce readiness in Birmingham showed that one sector where Birmingham has a surplus of skilled labor is life sciences.

“For me personally, it is satisfying to be doing job creation in that space,” he said.