Protein Foundry: Milwaukee’s Medical Foundry

By Anna Lardinois

Startup Storyteller

Dr. Brian Volkman, professor of Biochemistry discovered the subject of his life’s work in an undergraduate chemistry course. It was there he was introduced to proteins. His imagination was captured by the “protein folding problem,” which is how a protein’s amino acid sequence dictates its three-dimensional atomic structure. That was the start of a 30-year career studying proteins.

Volkman, a professor of biochemistry at the Medical College of Wisconsin, specializes in a family of proteins known as chemokines.  

“Chemokines are a network of molecular homing beacons. These proteins guide different types of white blood cells to all the places in your body where they’re needed to fight off infection, promote wound healing, and perform the routine maintenance of keeping your immune system up to date,” he said.

This specialty has led to professional experiences that have ranged from heading research labs to faculty instructor — and now, President of Protein Foundry, a Milwaukee-based startup that creates and sells proteins for academic and industrial research laboratories.

Volkman didn’t plan for a career in academia.

“I didn’t see the appeal of an academic lifestyle” he said. “After (I completed) my PhD, working at UW Madison as a postdoctoral fellow and then as a staff scientist, I got the opportunity to launch a new research project. For the first time I had the experience of being my own scientific boss. I was surprised at how rewarding it was to be the person who asks the question and designs experiments to generate new knowledge.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) that funded Dr. Volkman’s research required that he have a faculty position to ensure long-term funding. That brought him to the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), where he would meet the eventual co-founders of Protein Foundry.

“I realized there’s a lot of appeal to being an entrepreneur, to striking out on your own,” he said. “And it isn’t even all that different from what you do in academia as a research scientist. You have to come up with an idea to sell to a customer — in this case, the NIH – to get money to go out and pursue your idea. The difference is that the product usually isn’t a commercial product, it’s new knowledge with occasional inventions.”

After arriving at MCW, Volkman met Dr. Michael Dwinell, an immunologist who also worked with chemokines. Dwinell asked Volkman where his lab got their proteins and discovered Volkman’s team was creating their own proteins in the lab. Volkman explains, “we grow up cultures of bacteria that have been engineered to make whichever protein we want.”

They did not know it then, but that exchange would eventually lead them to launch a business.

Volkman’s lab grew the specialized chemokines Dwinell needed and later learned Dwinell’s team had been paying anywhere between $20-50,000 for just a few milligrams of material.

“So that was the first inkling that there may be a side benefit to making the substrate material for our experiments,” he said. “Our research materials might also have commercial value.”

That conversation spawned what is today a 20-year research collaboration, including several papers studying cancer and the role of chemokines. 

“We went to conferences, and would meet other people who would say basically the same thing Mike did, ‘Ooh, hey, do you think I could get some of that?,’” Volkman said.

He continues, “I started routinely sending out sample tubes of protein to both national and international researchers.  Over time I would hear back from them, ‘wow, your stuff is really way better than the stuff that we’ve been buying.’ So that furthered the idea that there might be a business opportunity here.”

In 2014, Volkman and Dwinell were joined by fellow founders Dr. Francis Peterson and Chad Koplinski and formed a company. They had a great product and a ready customer base; now the company needed a name.

Volkman recalls, “(the founders) have a real affinity for Milwaukee, and were looking for something that would evoke the great history of Milwaukee as an early industrial center for manufacturing.”

With that thought in mind, the group dubbed themselves Protein Foundry. The company has been busy making chemokines and other cytokines ever since.

Protein Foundry focuses on a specialized niche, creating a level of personalized service and expertise that cannot be duplicated by competitors offering a variety of biologics. The high quality of Protein Foundry’s products provide a remedy for what the National Association of Scholars dubs the “the irreproducibility crisis of modern science.”

Volkman explains, “It’s hard to do really good experimental science,” Volkman said. “And in many cases, the result you get is going to be different than the result that someone else gets doing the same experiment for reasons that are really hard to figure out.  You’re in a different place and some of the tools and reagents that you’re using are different. One of the ways that you can reduce the problem of irreproducibility is making sure that when you do an experiment, (and you always have to rely to some extent on things that somebody else made in your work) that those things are what they say they are.”

“Protein Foundry makes proteins that research scientists need for their projects, and we are confident that our products are of higher quality than anything else on the market. Our manufacturing and quality control methods are the best in the industry, because we make sure that 100% of  the final product has the correct three-dimensional structure. That’s why our customers get consistent results and come back for more.”

The profitable company has seen year- over- year growth for each of the last four years.  While many businesses suffered slowdowns due to the pandemic, Protein Foundry was not one of them. “It’s been gratifying to see that our customers didn’t stop doing science,” he said. “They all found a way to keep doing what they love. And that’s helped keep our business going.”

Their success has allowed Protein Foundry to leave the Medical College of Wisconsin incubator where it has resided for the last seven years. The company is opening their own production lab in West Allis and anticipates the lab will be operational this June.

As for the future, the Protein Foundry team is looking forward to settling into their new lab and keeping their options open. Volkman describes their “slow and steady growth trajectory,” but notes the agile company is prepared for any opportunities that present themselves.

To learn more about this fascinating Milwaukee-based business, visit their website here.

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