fostering innovation

Innovation studio aims to put Houston on the map for life science startup development

Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Fannin Innovation Studio, says that now is the time to invest in life sciences. Photo via Getty Images

In a report last year from commercial real estate services company JLL, Boston took the crown for hosting the country's top life sciences ecosystem. Houston ranked 11th.

The difference between Houston and Boston "is not the innovation, it's not the technology, it's not the money. It's that we don't have experienced life sciences entrepreneurs," says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio, a for-profit entity that commercializes biotech and medtech concepts.

Fannin has tried to replicate Boston's robust life sciences ecosystem "in a really, really tiny way" via its fellowship program, Varadhachary says. But the reach of the program could be even greater, he believes.

Varadhachary makes a case for tripling or even quadrupling the number of participants in Fannin's federally accredited fellowship program. He says this one relatively small investment could push Houston closer to Boston in the life sciences stratosphere.

Atul Varadhachary is the managing partner of Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio. Photo via fannininnovation.com

To be sure, Houston is no slouch in life sciences. For instance, commercial real estate services company CBRE issued a report last fall ranking Houston second among the country's top emerging clusters for life sciences. But cities like Boston, San Francisco, and San Diego still reign as life sciences royalty in the U.S.

Fannin typically taps five people at a time — folks who've recently earned a master's degree, medical degree or PhD — for a two-year fellowship in life sciences entrepreneurship and commercialization. The initiative is comparable to a post-doctorate program in research or medicine. The Fannin fellows collaborate with therapeutics and medical device companies in the studio's portfolio, gaining hands-on training in facets of business like R&D, intellectual property, regulatory matters, and financing.

Today, five fellows and seven interns work at Fannin. The fellowship program launched in 2006; the internship program started a year earlier. In all, Fannin has welcomed more than 250 fellows and interns. Some of them have gone on to work at Houston organizations such as TMC Innovation, MD Anderson Cancer Center, and the University of Houston.

Varadhachary believes boosting the fellowship headcount to perhaps 15 instead of the current five would be a small price to pay to help elevate Houston's status in life sciences. The full cost of each fellowship is less than $100,000 a year, so bringing aboard another 10 fellows would require an extra annual commitment of under $1 million. That kind of money isn't in Fannin's budget, though.

"I can think of nothing that could give a bigger return on investment for the city," Varadhachary says of expanding Fannin's fellowship program.

More fellows would mean more entrepreneurs equipped to run or start life sciences businesses in Houston, he says. Varadhachary acknowledges the value of efforts like the soon-to-open TMC3 life sciences hub and the recently opened Ion entrepreneurship hub, but he'd like to see more emphasis placed on nurturing people and not just startups.

Varadhachary says the "the one single thing" that Houston could do to increase its probability of success in life sciences, particularly in therapeutics, would be to crank up cultivation of entrepreneurial talent.

"By and large, I don't think know that this community appreciates how important and how under-resourced that whole people-development piece is," he says. "It's not something that comes from taking classes or watching. It comes from doing."

Andrea Letkeman, director of professional development at Fannin, says the fellows initially work one-on-one with a senior executive on projects, then eventually graduate to running their own projects. Fellows also get a close-up look at other projects underway at Fannin.

Varadhachary wants to get Fannin fellows excited "about what we're doing in Houston, and then give them an opportunity to be part of our ecosystem."

Some Fannin fellows have been hired on a full-time basis by the studio, or they've moved into jobs at venture capital firms, life sciences startups, or other players in the ecosystem, according to Letkeman. She says the fellows lend "energy and vibrancy" to Fannin.

"I think that the Fannin model is fairly unique for Houston. There are models that are similar, across the country, to what we do. But there's not enough of them, quite frankly, for the number of people that are interested in these kinds of roles," Letkeman says.

"There is talent that is looking for a way to bridge the gap between academia and real-world commercialization," she adds. "There's just not enough opportunities out there for them."

Trending News

Building Houston

 
 

Here's what experiments TRISH is launching aboard Axiom Space's next mission. Photo via NASA

Houston's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, will launch six more experiments into space this spring aboard Axiom Space's Ax-2 mission, the organization announced this week.

The biomedical research conducted through TRISH, in consortium with CalTeach and MIT, will look into how space travel impacts everything from motion sickness to memory over the course of the mission's 10-day stint on the International Space Station.

The crew will consist of four astronauts: Commander Peggy Whitson (previously with NASA), Pilot John Shoffner and Mission Specialists Ali AlQarni and Rayyanah Barnawi. It's a historic team, bringing the first female private space crew commander and the first Saudi astronauts to the ISS.

“Insights gathered from this work improve our understanding of how the human body and mind respond to spaceflight, helping us to prepare future astronauts to remain safe and healthy during longer-duration missions," Dr. Dorit Donoviel, TRISH executive director and professor in the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a statement.

The six projects onboard the mission have been developed by researchers within TRISH as well as the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University and Baylor College of Medicine. They aim to assess the following:

  • Spaceflight participants’ performance in memory, abstraction, spatial orientation, emotion recognition, risk decision making and sustained attention before and after the mission -Astronauts’ inner ears and eyes' response to motion before and after space travel and how this relates to motion sickness and nausea during launch and landing
  • The effects of spaceflight on the human body at the genomic level
  • Changes to the eyes and brain during spaceflight
  • Astronaut's sleep, personality, health history, team dynamics and immune-related symptoms
  • Sensorimotor abilities and changes in space and how this can impact astronauts' ability to stand, balance and have full body control on the moon

Some of this information will become part of TRISH’s Enhancing eXploration Platforms and ANalog Definition, or EXPAND, program, which aims to boost human health on commercial space flights through its database. The program launched in 2021.

Ax-2 is Axiom's second all-private astronaut mission to the ISS and will launch out of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard a SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft. Axiom was first established in 2016 with the goal of building the world's first commercial space station.

TRISH is also slated to launch nine experiments on board SpaceX's Polaris Dawn mission, which is now expected to launch this summer. The research aboard Polaris Dawn is intended to complement research supported by TRISH on the Inspiration4 all-civilian mission to orbit, which was also operated by SpaceX in 2021.

Trending News