November/December 2015 Issue
Chemical engineer Ellen Brune has patented
a technology to reduce waste and costs in
certain drug manufacturing, and she strives
to help other inventors market their products.
Photography by Beth Hall
Ellen Brune, at just 28, has found a way to reduce the cost of manufacturing certain drugs by as much as 50 percent and is CEO of her own company, Boston Mountain Biotech in Fayetteville, which aims to market that invention and aid others in finding ways to market their own.
Brune spends most of her time talking with pharmaceutical company representatives about the company’s technique for making new protein drugs quicker and with far less waste.
She has a simpler version of her spiel for the public.
“Protein therapeutics are much more complicated to make because you have to use a microorganism, and you have to convince that cell to be like a little cellular factory and manufacture those proteins for you,” Brune said.
“Because you’re having to use that little microorganism for a factory, it’s not nearly as efficient as the chemical process, so that cellular factory on a good day — on a really, really good day — is making 30 percent product and 70 percent contaminant,” she said. “Obviously, the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] says you can’t inject people with stuff that’s only 30 percent product. You’ve got to get it up to like a 99.9 percent purity. The industry, we estimate, spends about $8 billion a year doing that, and in the process it throws away about half of the product they’re making, just trying to get it clean.”
Lotus technology, which she helped create as an honors fellow and doctoral academy fellow at the University of Arkansas and is the basis for a manufacturing platform she patented for E. coli strains in January 2015, changes that.
“We figured out how to figure out what the cell was doing — like what it was making that’s not product,” said Brune, “and genetically modify it so it won’t do that anymore. Obviously we can’t turn it all off because it’s a living thing, but you can begin to turn off the processes that aren’t essential. Like a person, it’s going to have extra things like an appendix and tonsils and stuff that it doesn’t really need, so we figured out how to turn those pieces off so there’s more product being made and less waste generation.”
Brune was a Cartier Women’s Initiative Award finalist, one of 18 in the world and one of only two in the United States to compete in Paris in October 2015 for a $20,000 prize, plus a year of business development and marketing training.
Brune grew up in a family of engineers and mathematicians and knew she would take her place in the science world. She completed her doctorate in chemical engineering in 2013. She didn’t, however, set out to collect $100,000 from the National Science Foundation, nor did she plan to capitalize on her entrepreneurial ability and start her own company.
When University of Arkansas chemical engineering professor Robert Beitle told her he would be applying for the NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program in 2012, she agreed to edit the application.
Around the same time, her roommate was reading patents as part of her coursework for Carol Reeves’ entrepreneurship and innovation program at UA, with the goal of finding a technology to wrap a business plan around and defend as a team for a competition.
“She was like, ‘I’ve got a degree in creative writing. I’m reading over all of these patents, and I have no idea what they mean,’” Brune said. “That’s kind of how it started with me being part of the team. They had just picked me up to read patents for them.”
The team opted to use her Lotus purification platform technology as the basis for their business plan. Two team members dropped out just before the competition, and because the rules required at least two students be on the team, she recruited her father, Ricky Draehn, who was pursuing his executive master of business administration degree at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.
Draehn, now chief financial officer for Boston Mountain Biotech, cleaned up her financial statements and they won the competition, netting somewhere around $20,000 for their efforts. Brune’s husband, Stuart — molecular biologist turned high school Advanced Placement physics teacher — teamed up with her for other competitions.
Brune is optimistic about Lotus’ potential for pharmaceutical markets’ profitability, and its promise for public health.
Lower production costs may spur pharmaceutical companies to make more orphan drugs, creating, she said, therapies for rare diseases for which none are currently available.
“It would be nice if they dropped the cost that passes through to the patient,” she said. “I tend to think that’s wishful thinking, just knowing the business model of these companies — it’s more likely to get rolled into future research and development — but then you could argue that they have a higher profit margin on the drug and it gets rolled into new treatments and therapies.”
The potential for other scientists who take advantage of Boston Mountain Biotech’s startup support — ranging from project risk assessments to engineering to law — are much higher, at least based on how things are going for Brune.
“I couldn’t have orchestrated this if I had tried,” she said. “They tell me that’s the mark of a good entrepreneur, to just watch your environment and when you see good opportunities, to just jump forward and grab them.”