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Alan Russell, Highmark Distinguished Career Professor of Chemical Engineering, recently received the 2018 Innovator Award from the Pittsburgh Business Times for his work as CEO of startup BioHybrid Solutions. Russell co-founded the company with Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, the J.C. Warner University Professor of Natural Sciences in the Department of Chemistry, and Tonia Simakova, a postdoctoral researcher in the Matyjaszewski Polymer Group.

“Our goal is to create the next generation of protein-polymer conjugates,” says Russell. “Non-technically speaking, we’re trying to nano-armor proteins to make them better at what they do.”

BioHybrid was created in 2016 to produce protein-based products for a range of different industrial applications. Their process uses atom transfer radical polymerization (ATRP), which was first discovered by Matyjaszewski in 1995. Matyjaszewski and Russell have collaborated for years, developing their technique for commercialization.

Proteins are used to create injectable therapeutic treatments such as insulin and for catalyzing reactions in pharmaceutical and biofuel manufacturing. However, these proteins are often required to function in environments that may hinder or prevent them from working in the desired way—insulin, for example, must be injected because it otherwise cannot survive the acidity of the stomach.

To protect protein in these hazardous environments, BioHybrid “nano-armors” proteins with polymer chains, attached via the ATRP process. Though the ability to create protein-polymer conjugates like this has existed for a long time, prior to now the process has been expensive, time-consuming, and difficult to control. With Russell and Matyjaszewski’s methods, the same products can be produced faster and with a much higher degree of control—at just one-tenth the cost.

“We are using techniques and catalysts that are billions of times more active than those originally used 20 years ago, allowing us to use much smaller concentrations,” explains Matyjaszewski. “Especially in an aqueous system, you need to tweak the polymerization conditions a little bit—like cooking, but cooking by design. It’s more like molecular cuisine.”

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BioHybrid has secured funding from both the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), with plans to continue to grow and expand its business. The team is working to secure additional grants and funding, and Russell says the company hopes to roughly triple the size of its staff within the next year. Its facility is located at the University of Pittsburgh Applied Research Center (U-PARC) right between the offices of Agentase (now FLIR Systems) and ATRP Solutions (now Pilot Chemicals), startups founded by Russell and Matyjaszewski, respectively. Both have since been successfully acquired by industry interests.

“It is an interesting twist of fate that the new company sits in a facility literally in-between the former ATRP Solutions and Agentase facilities,” says Russell. “It’s really nice because the existing companies can help the new company grow.”