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."

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Building Houston

 
 

This Houston staffing firm has tapped into tech to support the growing gig economy workforce. Photo via Getty Images

As the independent workforce continues to grow, a Houston-based company is aiming to connect these workers with companies that match their specific needs with a new digital platform.

FlexTek, a 14-year old recruiting and staffing company, launched a first gig site tailored to the needs of the individual worker. The platform, Workz360, is built to be able to manage projects, maintain quality control, and manage billing and year-end financial reporting.The company is also working to expanding the platform to provide infrastructure to assist independent workers with education, access to savings programs, tax compliance through vetted third-party CPA firms, and hopes in the future to assist with access to liability and medical insurance.

With a younger workforce and a shifting economy, the “gig economy,” which is another way to describe how people can earn a living as a 1099 worker, offers an alternative option to the corporate grind in a post-pandemic workscape. Chief Marketing Officer Bill Penczak of Workz360 calls this era “Gig 2.0,” and attributes the success of this type of workforce to how during the COVID-19 pandemic people learned how to work, and thrive in non-traditional work environments. The site also boasts the fact it won’t take a bite out of the worker’s pay, which could be an attractive sell for many since other sites can take up to 65 percent of profit.

“In the past few years, with the advent of gig job platforms, the Independent workers have been squeezed by gig work platforms taking a disproportionate amount of the workers’ income,” said FlexTek CEO and founder Stephen Morel in a news release. “As a result, there has been what we refer to as ‘pay padding,’ a phenomenon in which workers are raising their hourly or project rates to compensate for the bite taken by other platforms.

"Workz360 is designed to promote greater transparency, and we believe the net result will be for workers to thrive and companies to save money by using the platform,” he continues.

As the workforce has continued to change over the years, a third of the current U.S. workforce are independent workers according to FlexTek, workers have gained the ability to have more freedom where and how they work. Workz360 aims to cater to this workforce by believing in a simple mantra of treating your workers well.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this, but we like the Southwest Airlines model,” Penczak tells InnovationMap. “Southwest Airlines treats their people very well, and as a result those employees treat the passengers really well. We believe the same thing holds true. If we can provide resources, and transparency, and not take a bite out of what the gig worker is charging, then we will get the best and the brightest people since they feel like they won’t be taken advantage of. We think there is an opportunity to be a little different and put the people first.”

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