Q&A

Houston-based nonprofit leader believes COVID-19 will have long-term effects on important research

The Welch Foundation, led by Adam Kuspa, funds basic research across the state of Texas — research that's important both in and out of pandemic. Photo courtesy of The Welch Foundation

It's Adam Kuspa's job to provide support to Texas researchers as they attempt to create innovative chemical and biochemical solutions for the betterment of mankind.

Formerly the dean of research at Baylor College of Medicine, Kuspa now serves as president of Houston-based Welch Foundation, which has, over the past several decades, provided nearly $800 million in research funding across the state.

Kuspa, through the organization, regularly sees revolutionary chemical discoveries being innovated in Texas across the 60 institutions he works with. It's usually an exciting job.

"I've spent my career, at least the last 15 years or so, helping other people do their research — before as being in research at Baylor College of Medicine," Kuspa tells InnovationMap. "I really enjoy enabling very, very smart people to do creative, innovative science. It's a lot of fun."

However, as the race to find a cure and vaccine to COVID-19 heats up, Kuspa — along with other researchers and scientists — is watching carefully to see how the disease and its to-be solutions will affect research and medical innovations as a whole.

"What people forget in the rush to get a drug out is that you could also make matters worse," he says. "Drugs don't automatically cure or are neutral. They can also do harm. So, you want to be careful not to make the situation worse."

Kuspa sat down with InnovationMap to discuss The Welch Foundation's mission, as well as some of his observations on potential cures for COVID-19 and what concerns he has.

InnovationMap: Tell me about the Welch Foundation and what role it plays in Texas?

Adam Kuspa: For over 65 years, the Welch Foundation has pursued its mandate based on Robert Welch's thought from the 1950s that chemistry was very important to the improvement of mankind. And so, our mandate is to fund foundational research in chemistry in the state of Texas, working through academic institutions throughout the state. We've done that consistently for the past 65 years through several programs.

IM: What type of research does the foundation fund usually?

AK: The research grant program gives grants to individual investigators, and we're doing about 300 to 400 continuously throughout the state of Texas. There's also block grants to departments to encourage students to become involved in chemical research. And we have other programs such as our endowed chair programs. We've given out about 40 endowed professorships, which support specific professors at individual institutions and their chemical research.

I should point out that chemistry research from our perspective is broadly defined and includes biochemistry of material sciences, et cetera. Currently our grant portfolio consists of 50 percent biomedical research grants, which is relevant to current current situation with COVID-19.

IM: How do you connect to Texas research institutions usually?

AK: We have fairly typical calls for applications for research grants or departmental grants and for our two award programs: the Welch Award in Chemistry, which is given out every year in Houston, and the Norman Hackerman Award, for junior faculty researchers in state of Texas.

A lot of the work is going out in the community to visit with the researchers and our academic institution partners. That, of course, has been curtailed, but typically we would visit any one of the 60 or so institutions that we support on a cycle of several years. So, that involves going to the chemistry departments, speaking with faculty, hearing how the research is going, and getting feedback on how our programs can be improved.

We also have an annual research conference, which unfortunately has been canceled this year, but typically draws 200 to 800 participants from around the state with speakers coming in around the world. This year, it was meant to be on neuroscience. Last October, the conference concerned genome editing. So, it's quite exciting, and the conferences, which are always held in Houston, are generally very well attended. They are a good way to start to interact with the scientific community in general.

IM: What has been the organization’s focus during the pandemic?

AK: We are obligated to fund foundational research in chemistry and allied fields, like biochemistry. So, we're not at liberty to fund development of therapies, for instance. However, I would say an interesting way to look at this is that we hear a lot about a search for a therapeutic for COVID-19 and, obviously, a search for vaccine — these begin with research.

Since it normally takes 15 to 18 years to bring a drug to market from first principles of how you're going to interrupt the human biology to effecting a cure, you're hearing a lot about testing existing drugs or their potential therapeutic effect on COVID-19. The reason we're able to do that is because we have a lot of drugs that are in the process of being developed and drugs that are already approved for human use. It's a lot more efficient to try to look at the potential utility of those already human-approved drugs and their potential effect on viral replication.

So, we sort of view our role as the Welch Foundation as funding that foundational research — either in drug development from a chemical perspective or in funding foundational work in how viruses attack the human body in the first place. And, although we give out grants for basic research, our investigators are pretty industrious. When there's a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of them turned their attention towards the problem at hand.

Another way that we've supported the general availability of potential therapeutics is that we've made a large grant to The Center for Drug Discovery at the Baylor College of Medicine directed by Martin Matzuck. And the reason we were interested in helping to get that center started is because they had an idea to make a drug discovery and development much more efficient and cost effective. That promotes a general capability of Houston and Texas in terms of being able to bring about potential therapeutics to wide range of diseases, but potentially for COVID-19 specifically.

IM: What’s the usual process of getting a drug from research stage to use?

AK: There are four phases of testing. Phase one is for safety, phase two is for dosing and potential efficacy, and phase three is for broad range of efficacy — large numbers of patients and trials that take hundreds of millions of dollars to perform. Approval by FDA occurs after phase three, but then there's actually a phase four study, which is following the drug for potential adverse effects once it is in common use by the public.

You may remember there's a drug called Vioxx — it's a very good pain reliever. But, in the phase four study, after millions of prescriptions were written already, it was found to cause rare heart problems and heart attacks. People were dying spontaneously, and it was hard to pin that specifically on Vioxx, but you can do it statistically from the phase four trial after the drug was introduced.

So, the reason you hear about hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 is because you sort of get the short circuit and skip those phases and jump right to phase four studies where you know it's basically safe and you roughly know how to dose. But what you don't though is how that approved drug can be used for particular indications like COVID-19 and how safe it is.

You can't actually jump the normal 18-year process, and with existing drugs you're still only at year 15, where you're got another few years to figure out how to actually use them in the context of the COVID-19.

IM: Scientists and researchers are working on solutions, but what are the challenges they are facing?

AK: That's a great question. Given that we have so many research grants around the state, we get input literally on an hourly basis from our grantees on the status of their research because of the interruption. And the short story is that all research has been shut down in the state of Texas except for research directly related to coronavirus.

Large biomedical research centers, which have hundreds of millions of dollars a year in external research funding going to cure a broad range of disease have shut all of their labs down, except for the few labs that are working directly on COVID-19. That includes vaccine discovery and production.

A lot of work has been wasted because often biological experiments take weeks and months of progression, and if can't complete the final steps, you'll have to start over.

IM: Do you think this will have a long-term effect on research?

AK: I think so. Science, as it turns out, is a very creative, human-interactive activity. It's actually much more social than people realize. It's not the individual scientist working at the lab bench only. It's a lot of travel, seminars given by out-of-town speakers, scientific conferences, gatherings of hundreds of people.

The annual neuroscience conference attracts 40,000 people every year from all over the world — and that's not happening. As far as we can tell, all scientific conferences have been canceled for the rest of 2020. When I talked to my colleagues and professors around the country, every out of town seminar has been canceled. So, the exchange of information that's been so vital to stimulate creativity and collaboration between laboratories isn't happening, and there are new venues have to be found to do that online. But there is going to be a limitation. I think people are adapting, and we'll just have to see how it unfolds.

The published literature is one to one-and-a-half years behind what's actually happening in the laboratory. So, the way people learn about what's going on — the failed experiments, the things you're trying out, the exciting new ideas — is generally through face-to-face interactions. And that happens by scientists traveling between universities and at conferences in the hallways between the formal sessions. That aspect is absolutely vital to the progress of science.

IM: What is something you want people to know about the basic research that the Welch Foundation is funding?

We need consistency and support for basic research because, during a pandemic, we want to have a cure, but we don't think about the hundreds of thousands of scientists across the country who are struggling to get funding for the basic research when there's not a pandemic.

Additionally, this basic research is also the engine for industry — particularly the biotech industry in Houston, and folks have been really working hard to try to ensure that there's an ecosystem for new companies to be formed out of Houston. I think part of the reason why we might survive this current oil glut as opposed to the mid 1980s is that the Houston economy is diversified with — not just with the port and NASA — but with biomedical research and patient care. In Houston, health care is the largest employer — it's larger than oil and gas. That kind of diversification is good for the economy and good for the innovation environment that people in Houston have tried really to make happen for the last 10 years or so.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Building Houston

 
 

Several Houston startups won kudos and more at recent competitions — plus more Houston innovation news. Photo via Getty Images

What's the latest in news for the Houston innovation ecosystem? So glad you asked. Here's some local startup and tech news you might have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, an energy transition startup snagged $100,000 in a recent competition, four space health researchers were named to a Houston program, a Houston tech startup was tapped by Google for its recent cohort, and more.

Cemvita Factory wins $100,000 in clean energy competition

Cemvita Factory has secured wins in two recent startup competitions. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

A Houston company has been named the the $100,000 cash winner of an inaugural competition.

The GS Beyond Energy Innovation Challenge from Cleantech.org named Cemvita Factory as the big winner — out of six finalists. Another Houston company, Amperon Inc. , came in second place, followed by Skycool Systems in third place. The third Houston startup named to the finals, Veloce Energy, was named the crowd's favorite. The three Houston finalists were announced in June.

"Our top three startups face many challenges on the path to accelerating the energy transition, and we are honored to be a part of their journey. Startuplandia is a rough and tumble world, and it was a very close competition. Congrats to Moji Karimi and the Cemvita Factory team. Can't wait to see what you do next," says Neal Dikeman, chairman of Cleantech.org and a partner at one of the prize sponsors, Energy Transition Ventures, in a news release. "And a huge thanks to our accelerator and incubator partners. We look forward to working with everyone again in the future."

Cemvita Factory was also named the winner of The Ion's Houston Startup Showcase a few weeks ago.

Google taps Houston startup for latest cohort

Google has named DOSS to its Black Founders Accelerator. Photo via Pexels

A Houston startup has made it into the Google for Startups Accelerator: Black Founders cohort. DOSS, a digital, voice-activated real estate tool, was selected for the second cohort of the accelerator.

Bobby Bryant leads the company as founder and CEO. DOSS is joined by 10 other startups — including two other Texas companies, Dallas-based Zirtue and Fêtefully.

"Being a digital real estate search and transactional marketplace, this is a perfect opportunity for DOSS to have direct access to Google Engineers and Developers. This is a startup founder's dream to work with Google," Bryant writes in a LinkedIn post.

The program concludes with a showcase on Thursday, October 21 from 11:30 am to 1:00 pm.

Space health organization selects four fellows

These four fellows will continue their space health research with the support of TRISH. Photo via Pexels

Houston-based Translational Research Institute for Space Health, known as TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine has named four scientists to receive postdoctoral fellowship awards to further their career in space health. Each fellow will work on a two-year project that "addresses challenges to astronaut health during deep space exploration missions," according to a news release. The fellows also become part of the TRISH Academy of Bioastronautics, a forum for postdoctoral researchers working on TRISH research projects.

"The space industry needs a strong pool of highly-trained scientists focused on human health to return us to the moon," says Zélia Worman, TRISH scientific program manager and lead for postdoctoral career development, in the release. "TRISH has selected four postdoctoral fellows who are ready for the challenge. We are proud to welcome these outstanding scientists to our Academy of Bioastronautics and work with them to launch their career in space health and reach for the Moon and Mars safely."

The postdoctoral fellows are:

  • Kaylin Didier of the University of Wisconsin, Madison — focused on ionizing radiation and immune responses: exploring sex differences
  • James Jahng of Stanford University, California — focused on countermeasure development against myocardial mitochondrial stress by space radiation exposure
  • Heather McGregor of the University of Florida, Gainesville — focused on investigating planta somatosensory noise as a countermeasure for balance and locomotion impairments in simulated lunar and Martian gravity
  • Mallika Sarma of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland — focused on stress response and neurovestibular compensation and the potential ameliorative effects of team support

Houston energy consortium names winners in startup competition

Energy tech founders pitched at the Society of Petroleum Engineers' summit. Photo via Getty Images

The Innovation and Entrepreneurship Summit from the Society of Petroleum Engineers-Gulf Coast Section concluded with a startup pitch event earlier this month. Three startups were recognized at the Shark Tank-style competition.

  • The judges selected Houston-based SaaS startup InerG as the winner.
  • The People's Choice winner was New Jersey-based Anax Power.
  • North Carolina-based Revolution Turbine was the runner-up, according to the judges, as well as received honorable mention from the People's Choice portion of the competition.
The judges of the event — or the "sharks" — included Plug and Play Director Payal Patel, Montrose Lane Managing Partner Ryan Gurney, CSL Ventures Vice President Abhinav Jain, and SCF Ventures Managing Director Hossam Eldadawy.

Capital Factory is calling for all female founders

Attention female founders — Capital Factory has a competition you need to know about. Photo via Getty Images

Austin-based Capital Factory's Texas Fund, in partnership with Beam Angel Network, Seven Seven Six Fund, and Golden Seeds (Houston), has announced a $100,000 Investment Challenge for its 4th Annual Women In Tech Summit on October 4. Capital Factory is looking for five technology startup finalists to pitch to a panel of advisors and judges made up of successful investors, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders. The prize on the line? A $100,000 investment and membership into Capital Factory.

Any software, hardware, or CPG startup in Texas with a female founder or co-founder can apply to participate. The finalists will all be fast tracked into the Capital Factory portfolio, access to the Capital Factory Mentor network and coworking space, and up to $250,000 in potential total hosting credits from AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure and other major hosting providers. Capital Factory will receive: 1 percent common stock grant as advisor equity (separate from the investment) and the right to invest up to $250,000 in the next round of funding.

One winner will receive a $100,000 cash investment on a SAFE or Convertible Note using Capital Factory's term sheet and your most recent funding valuation, or a qualified term sheet provided by the company. The deadline is September 12. Submit your application

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