September 2012

At the forefront with Avanti

Stephen Burgess, Rowena Shaw, Walt Shaw and Trevor Shaw 
L–R: Stephen Burgess, Rowena Shaw, Walt Shaw and Trevor Shaw. Image courtesy of Walter Shaw. 

His first sale wasn’t anything to make him rich, says Shaw, but it did land him an annual contract of $12,000 to supply GIBCO with lipids. When he got back to Virginia, he and Jezyk established a company called Laboratory Pure Biochemicals. An assistant professor at the Medical College of Virginia, Joseph Liberti, who later joined Virginia Commonwealth University and passed away in 2009, knew the executives at GIBCO. “He said, ‘If you let me in on this deal, we can sell them millions of dollars' worth of lipids instead of $12,000 a year,’” says Shaw. The trio rented laboratory space from the University of Richmond for the business endeavor.

But first, Liberti, an Italian by blood, objected to the company name. He told his partners that “Laboratory Pure Biochemicals” was terrible and instead suggested “Avanti,” the Italian word that means to go forward.

“I wrote a catalog”
In January 1969, Avanti Biochemicals began business. Shaw, Jezyk and Liberti quickly learned the ropes of making high-quality lipids and began shipping them to GIBCO. But it was arduous. Each day, after doing research at MCV, they drove to their rented space and worked well past midnight making lipids. Despite their hard work, “From January to July, sales of lipids to Grand Island Biological did not increase by leaps and bounds,” says Shaw. “Joe and Pete got tired of this in a hurry.”

That summer, Jezyk and Liberti told Shaw they wanted out of Avanti Biochemicals. Shaw bought each out for $500. At the same time, Harlan informed Shaw that he was going to move to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He asked if Shaw would like to move with him as a graduate student and do his Ph.D. work on the brother-sister phospholipase activity. Shaw agreed. In September 1969, Walter and Rowena Shaw moved to Alabama with their young children.

For four years at UAB, Walter Shaw did his thesis work, oversaw two university lipid laboratories and ran Avanti, which by then was supplying GIBCO with lipids worth $16,000 a year. “I was a busy guy,” he says.

But it wasn’t smooth sailing. Shaw’s initial thesis project based on the brother-sister project at MCV was to isolate the enzyme responsible for the phospholipase activity. But after a year, “my results hit a stone wall, and my research ground to a halt,” he says.

Alarmed, he began to consider changing projects. But one day, he came across a research article published by W. Virgil Brown’s group at the University of California, San Diego. The paper described a liver enzyme that had triacylglycerol hydrolytic activity. Shaw called Brown “and told him that I had the other half of the story, phospholipase activity,” he recalls. Brown invited Shaw to work with him in California, which Shaw did. They eventually demonstrated that the enzyme, a liver lipase, has both triacylglycerol and phospholipase activity. Shaw says this time was a major turning point in his life and taught him that “research is unpredictable, and hard times are growing experiences.”

In 1973, after Shaw graduated with his Ph.D. from UAB, he suggested to GIBCO that he set up a lipid division for it in Ohio. But GIBCO executives had other plans. “They informed me that lipids had absolutely no future. They didn’t want me to set up a lipid lab for them,” says Shaw. “In fact, they were going to cancel the contract.”

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  • Hi Rajendrani,

    It was a brilliantly written story. I met the the Shaws and Burgess at a Biophysical conference meeting a couple of years ago. They are very pleasant people and a pleasure to meet. One thing you left out of the story is how much Walt travels with Avanti. He is at so many conferences backing the Avanti brand. He is a rock star in the lipid world as the Rolling Stones are in the rock world.

    Gladly I have been using Avanti's products for well ten years in different aspects of lipid research from producing liposomes to working with Phospholipase. I am really excited to see the what will happen with LIPID MAPS consortium and the future of Avanti research after this. Perhaps one day researchers around the world will start ordering a very rare lipid that can prolong life.....

  • Wonderful story on a great adventure in life and science, on many levels. Avanti lipids have for years been one of the cornerstones of all my science.

  • Hi Rajendrani ,
    What a wonderful write up on Avanti and Dr. Walt Shaw -- super subject , a super star in the field and his team and a fantastic example of passion in science and it's turn to technology. You really captured an inspiring scientist ! Many thanks for your efforts on this . All the best , Charlie

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