Research and business partners Drs. Brian and Katie Thompson have collaborated on two new developments in the past year. As husband and wife, they are the proud parents of Luke, their ten-month-old son. As biological scientists, they are the proud founders of Elemental Enzymes Inc., their five-month-old technology startup business in Columbia, Mo.
Luke brings joy and challenge to their lives, as any parent can attest after the arrival of a newborn. Currently his biggest project is learning to walk.
Elemental Enzymes also brings challenges and joy, as any freshly minted business owner can attest after founding a company. Challenges include deciding on the type of business, choosing a name, searching for backing and selecting the proper location. Determining solutions to those challenges brings the joy.
“We see ourselves as a ‘greentech’ company,” says Brian, president of the firm. “We make enzymes to address personal and industrial contamination problems. We make them in a unique fashion that makes them less expensive and more stable than other enzymes. Greater stability allows the product to last longer and do the job the client needs it to do.”
Those clients could come from a range of fields — bioenergy, oil production, pharmaceuticals, environmental remediation — any business that finds itself in the position of needing high efficiency enzymes.
“We can design enzymes to remove pesticides, heavy metals like mercury and chromium, pharmaceutical residues, and remnants of explosive compounds such as TNT and C-4, among other applications,” says Katie, chief researcher, vice president and CFO of Elemental Enzymes.
The idea for the company came from Brian’s postdoctoral work at the University of Missouri. After earning his doctorate in diagnostic medicine and veterinary pathobiology at Kansas State University, he came to MU to conduct bacterial disease research. One of Brian’s side projects at MU lead to a discovery of a new way of producing enzymes. Collaborating with veteran MU scientists-George Stewart, chairman and professor of veterinary pathology, and Chung-Ho Lin, research associate professor of agroforestry-Brian perfected new enzyme production processes that are being patented by the University.
(Note: MU’s intellectual property policy is similar to most research universities: when University researchers develop a patentable product or process, it becomes the property of the institution.)
Soon after Brian left MU to form his company, he signed a licensing agreement with the University allowing Elemental Enzymes to use the patent-pending processes he developed during his stint as a postdoctoral researcher.
That licensing agreement was one of many steps in the business start-up process. Brian took another significant step when he contacted the Missouri Small Business & Technology Development Center at MU’s College of Engineering.
After completing several key business classes taught by staff of the SBTDC Brian engaged the help of Paul Bateson, business counselor and tech commercialization specialist at the center, for assistance in setting up his company. Bateson encouraged the business novice to become fully educated about his key markets, helped with investor advice, and connected Brian to many useful resources and potential future clients. Additionally, Bateson assisted Elemental Enzymes in submitting several federal SBIR grant applications to pursue additional start-up capital.
Brian originally called his enterprise Spogen Biotech Inc. But several people, including Bateson, strongly encouraged Brian to devise a more recognizable and easier to pronounce name. Hence, the moniker Elemental Enzymes was born.
Bateson also helped Brian analyze and secure sources of start-up funding. The company attracted funds from several private investors. That amount doubled this summer when the firm received approval of its application to the TechLaunch co-investment program at the Missouri Technology Corporation, part of the state’s Department of Economic Development.
“Having this backing has allowed us to buy research equipment and lease excellent lab space at the MU Life Science Business Incubator at Monsanto Place,” says Katie, whose research specialty is molecular, cellular and developmental biology. “Now that we’re moved into our new lab we’ll be able to take larger strides and make more research progress that will lead to additional product lines in the near future.”
Chief among those strides is building products that meet the needs of potential clients. Two recently developed enzyme applications with direct market potential: lactase, an enzyme that breaks down sugars, for use by researchers; and lipase, an enzyme that breaks down oils and fats for bio-fuel applications.
“It’s a great feeling to realize after more than a year of hard work we’ve arrived at the point where production and testing can take off,” says Brian. “However, I know without Paul’s guidance and the additional help we received from the SBTDC, we would not be a company today.”