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October 13, 2020 | Tom Ballard

Nate Brady playing the long game with LEAPh Biosystems LLC

Nate Brady says, “I’m here to play the long game and do it right,” and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) doctoral candidate underscores that strategy by pointing to 15 years of work focused on what he calls “sustained survival of the biosphere.”

Like many graduate students who also have their own start-up company, their graduation date can slide. “I hope it is this December, but it could be Spring 2021,” Brady told us when we chatted recently. There’s also the matter of the impact of COVID-19 on important research underway at UTK as well as two other universities that is related to the new venture.

“Those collaborations are dependent on the universities opening-up their labs again,” Brady says.

Once graduated, he will be able to devote his full attention to LEAPh Biosystems LLC, the company that he founded in March 2020. The acronym stands for Light Energy Applied Photosynthetic biosystem, and the initial focus is on providing a sustainable option for photovoltaics.

“I want to release the stranglehold that carbon sources have on us,” Brady explains, noting that solar panels today use earth-limited and sometimes toxic resources that are frequently referred to as rare earths.

His solution is a novel approach that harnesses the power of nature, using photosynthetic proteins to produce flexible, sustainable and non-toxic panels that convert sunlight into electricity.

“We have a novel extraction method for these proteins,” Brady says. “We will be integrating proteins onto electrodes to produce electricity from light,” and the result will be an increase in the efficiency of the devices that are made using the proteins.”

The UT Research Foundation secured a provisional patent in the spring of 2019 and has now filed a Patent Cooperation Treaty application on the technology underlying the LEAPh process.

Complementary research is also underway at Vanderbilt University on applied photosynthesis and at Virginia Commonwealth University to better understand the structural properties of the proteins.

As noted above, Brady has been focused on the environment for a long time, starting as an undergraduate chemistry major at the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry. After completing his degree, he accepted a job at Life Science Laboratories in Syracuse studying contaminant and nutrient cycling in the environment. That experience gave him first-hand insight into the effort required to manage environmental compliance.

Brady showed his persistence and commitment for the long-term after hearing about Quicksilver Scientific, a start-up business that assessed the prevalence of trace metals in humans and the environment. Interested in a job with the company, he emailed or called its Chief Executive Officer and Founder every three weeks for six months, then moved to Colorado and delivered sandwiches for another three months, maxing out his credit card. Finally, his persistence paid off and he got the job.

After more than five years in Colorado, Brady happened to find a TEDx video of UTK Professor Barry Bruce and his work in applied photosynthesis. As was later written on a UTK website, Brady had never heard of the technology before, but it checked all the boxes for him. From there on, he only applied to Ph.D. programs that had researchers focused on this technology, with Barry and UT being his number one choice.

“I’ve experienced more good fortune here than I could have ever imagined,” he says. That includes eight papers and being presented the “Outstanding Speaker Award” at the Fourth SMALP (Styrene Maleic Acid Lipid Particle) Conference in 2019.

What’s his commercialization strategy for the technology? Brady says it’s probably a three-year process for which he will need outside investment. He also plans to pursue Small Business Innovation Research grants.

Brady continues to work closely with the UT Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation that has provided the start-up with business/strategic planning. One of his near-term goals is to successfully compete for a spot in Cohort 5 of the “Innovation Crossroads” program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He says this accelerator, specializing in cleantech, hardware-based start-ups, is very well aligned with the mission and stage of LEAPh Biosystems. If selected, LEAPh would on board for the two-year accelerator program in Summer of 2021.

“We will use residential solar panels in East Tennessee as a beachhead market,” Brady says, but quickly adds that there are many more sectors such as wireless charging stations in dog parks while people exercise their pets.

More important, he says, “When this technology is successful, it will be very disruptive, and we will grow fast.”