Houston innovator plays the long game of life science innovation with optimized capital efficiency

Atul Varadhachary of Fannin joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Commercializing a life science innovation that has the potential to enhance or even save the lives of millions of patients is a marathon, not a sprint. That's how Atul Varadhachary thinks of it, and he's leading an organization that's actively running that race for several different early-stage innovations.

For over a decade, Fannin has worked diligently to develop promising life science innovations — that start as just an idea or research subject — by garnering grant funding and using its team of expert product developers to build out the technology or treatment. The model is different from what you'd see at an accelerator or incubator, and it also varies from the path taken by an academic or research institution.

The life science innovation timeline is very different from a software startup's, which can get to an early prototype in less than a year.

"In biotech, to get to that minimally viable product, it can take a decade and tens of millions of dollars," Varadhachary, managing director at Fannin, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Fannin addresses what Varadhachary calls a twin bottleneck in Houston's life science innovation ecosystem. Not only does Houston not attract the funding biotech startups need desperately to grow their companies, but hiring is a major issue as the city isn't home to an established labor pool of experienced product developers within the industry.

"The challenge is that product development is more complex — it requires innovation, but that's not sufficient. When you ask people why we lag in the product development in the life sciences — although we are home to the largest medical center in the country, we don't even make list of top 10 biotech clusters — the usual answer is that we don't have enough biotech investors," Varadhachary says.

"But that puts the cart before the horse," he continues. "Investors invest in people not just ideas. Although we have an amazing pool of researchers and clinicians, we lack experienced product developers."

In more ways than one, Fannin is addressing this problem. For all of its several ongoing programs, Fannin acts as the leadership team for the technologies. Its core employees — there are about 20 currently — work on all of the companies, which are developing a range life science innovations, from Brevitest, a point-of-use immunoassay platform, to Procyrion, an intra-aortic pump for congestive heart failure patients.

Fannin's programs also range in stage, which Varadhachary outlines on the show to be three different phases. The earliest stage programs will have Fannin's team working directly on early testing, product development, and grant writing, while the later stage programs will have built out a dedicated team and raise venture investment.

Another way Fannin is addressing Houston's lack of life science product developers is through its Fannin Talent Development Program, which has given around 350 individuals an opportunity to gain critical product development experience.

With 10 years under its belt, Fannin — as well as the greater Houston life science innovation ecosystem — is at a point where it can soon produce exits needed to firm up Houston as a life science leader.

"Clearly, we've got the base elements required to be a successful ecosystem, and they continue to grow," Varadhachary says of Houston. "Typically you need one or two really big success stories — especially if those success stories result in a company being sold, leaving behind experienced product developers with money in their pockets — that's often what will supercharge the next cycle of development. I'm hoping that will happen in Houston in the next five years, decade, or so."

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