LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas scientist has launched a startup company designed to tackle the most complicated protein production for academic and industrial clients.
KU biochemist Philip Gao has founded KanPro Research Inc., a contract research company that produces challenging proteins for university and corporate researchers in the life sciences, biotechnology and medicine. In addition to protein production, KanPro provides consulting services for clients with protein needs.
“Proteins are widely used by academic researchers and bioscience companies,” said Gao, director of KU’s Protein Production Group and president of the company. “But for clients with highly specialized and complicated protein needs, there are only a handful of domestic contract research organizations, and few if any of them can match KanPro’s capabilities. We focus on clients’ most tricky protein needs … basically, the projects that have failed elsewhere.”
KanPro has two employees — a lab manager and project manager — and is located in the Bioscience & Technology Business Center main facility on KU’s west campus. Gao said he foresees the company reaching an optimal size of five to 10 employees at the BTBC by 2017.
KanPro was officially launched in June 2014, and at the time became the university’s 25th active startup and the third KU startup created since 2012. There are now 28 startup companies based on KU technologies.
Origins at KU
KanPro stems from Gao’s work as director of KU’s Protein Production Group, a federally sponsored lab that over the years has evolved into an in‐house protein production center serving KU scientists in various fields. To date, the Protein Production Group has expressed and purified more than 500 proteins, including ones that had previously defied conventional methods. The Protein Production Group has served hundreds of clients, including Becton, Dickinson and Co., a global provider of medical products with offices in more than 50 countries.
“We’ve been very good at what we do,” Gao said. “Our success rate is over 95 percent.”
In recent years, the demand for purified proteins has exceeded the Protein Production Group’s capacity. That ultimately led Gao to spin out KanPro as a new company.
“We’ve developed tremendous expertise in the Protein Production Group, so the creation of KanPro is the outgrowth of that,” he said. “This company enables us to better serve academic and corporate customers.”
KanPro has eight clients, and the list is growing. Gao said he anticipates additional clients from KU, Kansas State University and Wichita State University. Meanwhile, he thinks Kansas City’s renowned Global Animal Health Corridor will be a prolific source of industrial customers.
“There’s nobody within 300 miles who does what we do,” he said. “Scientists, including those at KU, spend millions of dollars each year on proteins for research. By being here in Lawrence, KanPro can develop and supply these proteins better, quicker and cheaper. We want KanPro to be the company of and for the regional research community.”
KanPro starts with no debt and is already generating positive cash flow. Right now, the company’s focus will be on producing lab‐scale quantities for clients. Eventually, Gao said, he envisions the company expanding to manufacturing‐scale production at a larger regional facility.
“BTBC staff have been tremendously supportive throughout the process. I couldn’t imagine starting this company without them.”
~ Philip Gao Founder, KanPro
“We’re not here to make a couple of quick sales,” he said. “Our goals are long‐term. We want to create a lasting company in Lawrence with a focus on serving regional scientists and benefiting the biotech community.”
KU leaders view Gao as a model for other university researchers.
“In addition to being a world‐class scientist, Dr. Gao has a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for doing research that benefits people,” said Julie Nagel, interim associate vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship and president of KU Innovation & Collaboration, the office that heads KU’s commercialization activities. “This is precisely the type of mindset we encourage at KU. We want our faculty to transfer their discoveries into new companies, new products, new cures and new ways of thinking that grow the economy and improve our world.”
Gao credits BTBC staff with helping him launch KanPro. Specifically, BTBC staff helped customize his lab space, which included moving power lines, tweaking the layout and purchasing equipment. In addition, BTBC staff provided business and legal guidance to Gao, including advice on how to structure his businesses.
“BTBC staff have been tremendously supportive throughout the process,” Gao said. “I couldn’t imagine starting this company without them.”