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Texas vodka brand doles out $1M grant to Houston research institution for COVID-19 vaccine

Two researchers from Baylor College of Medicine are working on taking their work on a SARS vaccine and adjusting it to target COVID-19 — and they just got $1 million from Tito's Handmade Vodka to keep up their work. Photo via bcm.edu

A vodka distiller based in Austin is sending funds to a Houston research group that's working on a vaccine to fight the coronavirus.

Tito's Handmade Vodka — through its philanthropic arm Love, Tito's — has pledged to give Baylor College of Medicine a $1 million grant to accelerate research on a vaccine for the virus.

Two BCM researchers are taking the work they began in 2011 to develop a SARS vaccine with the intent to make adjustments to target SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Dr. Peter Hotez is the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor, and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi is the associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine. The duo serves as co-directors of the Texas Children's Hospital for Vaccine Development as well.

"Our coronavirus vaccine is designed in Texas and tested in Texas with the utmost priority to ensure it is safe and effective," Bottazzi says in a news release for BCM. "To now see that it will be supported by Texas-based Tito's is a testament that our state will be recognized as being at the forefront of this pandemic, making a difference and reaching all populations locally and globally."

Drs. Hotez and Bottazzi focus on developing vaccines for new or neglected tropical diseases that affect those living in poverty around the world. Along with their partnership with PATH, a global nonprofit organization that will help speed up the vaccine's regulatory phase, the doctors' work from 2011 on SARS is promising and will hopefully help safely and quickly develop a COVID vaccine.

"It's an honor to work with Tito's on this life-saving initiative, which we hope will ultimately lead to a vaccine for America," Hotez says in the release. "Our vision is that it would also advance as a low-cost global health vaccine, now that COVID-19 is racing through Latin American nations, such as Ecuador and Brazil, in addition to South Asia."

Love, Tito's, which is also based in Austin, has contributed to a few other organizations amid the COVID-19 crisis, including: Children of Restaurant Employees (CORE), USBG National Charity Foundation's COVID-19 Relief Campaign, World Central Kitchen, and Southern Smoke Foundation's Emergency Relief Fund, a Houston-based initiative.

"Everything we do at Tito's is rooted in giving back to the communities we serve, and this pandemic is no exception," says Sarah Everett, director of Global Impact and Research at Tito's Handmade Vodka.

"We applaud the worldwide effort to fund and support vaccines that look promising, because we can never know in advance which ones will be effective. We're proud to support Dr. Hotez, Dr. Bottazzi and their team's work to improve humanity's odds of success against COVID-19 and future coronavirus mutations."

Love, Tito's is the nonprofit arm of Tito's Handemade Vodka. Photo via titosvodka.com

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Building Houston

 
 

Unlike past awards programs hosted by Ignite Healthcare Network, the Ignite Madness winners accepted their awards via video call. Photo courtesy of Ignite

From the comfort of their own homes, several female entrepreneurs accepted investment and pitch prizes at the finals of an inaugural awards program created by a Houston-based, woman-focused health organization.

Ahead of the Ignite Madness finals on Thursday, October 29, Houston-based Ignite Healthcare Network named nine finalists that then pitched for three investment prizes. The finalists included:

  • Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based Abilitech Medical — medical device company that creates assistive devices to aid those with upper-limb neuromuscular conditions or injuries.
  • New Orleans, Louisiana-based Chosen Diagnostics — a biotech company focusing on custom treatment. First, Chosen is focused on creating two novel biomarker diagnostic kits — one for gastrointestinal disease in premature infants.
  • San Francisco, California-based Ejenta — which uses NASA tech and artificial intelligence to enhance connected care.
  • Highland, Maryland-based Emergency Medical Innovation — a company focused on emergency medicine like Bleed Freeze, a novel device for more efficiently treating nosebleeds.
  • Columbia, Missouri-based Healium — an app to quickly reduce burnout, self-manage anxiety, and stress.
  • Farmington, Connecticut-based Nest Collaborative — digital lactation solutions and support.
  • Palo Alto, California-based Nyquist Data — a smart search engine to enable medical device companies to get FDA approvals faster.
  • New Orleans-Louisiana based Obatala Sciences — a biotech startup working with research institutions across the globe to advance tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.
  • Perth, Australia-based OncoRes — a company that's developing a technology to provide surgeons with real-time assessment of tissue microstructure.
The inaugural event that mixed health care and basketball — two vastly different industries with strong connections to women — attracted support from partners and sponsors, such as Intel, Accenture, Morgan Lewis, Houston Methodist, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, and more, according to Ayse McCracken, founder and board chair of Ignite.

"Our partners and sponsors are an integral part of our organization" says McCracken. "Without each and every one of them, the networks, resources, and commitment to advancing women leaders, we would not have grown so rapidly in just four years and our IGNITE Madness event would not enjoy this vibrant ecosystem that now surrounds female entrepreneurs."

First up in selecting their winner for their investment was Texas Halo Fund. Chosen Diagnostics took home the $50,000 investment.

"While we were impressed by everyone who pitched tonight, one company stood out to us," says Kyra Doolan, managing partner. "[Chosen Diagnostics] exemplifies what we are looking for: an innovative solution, a strong CEO, and a real addressable market."

The second monetary award was presented by Tom Luby, director of TMC Innovation. The award was an $100,000 investment from the TMC Venture Fund, as well as admission to TMCx. The recipient of the investment was OncoRes.

"We are absolutely blown away," says Katharine Giles, founder of Onco. "We've already got a great link to Texas and looking forward to more."

The largest monetary award that was on the table was presented by Wavemaker Three-Sixty Health, a leading Southern-California based, early stage venture capital firm, for $150,000. However, at the time of the announcement, Managing Partner Jay Goss decided to award four startups an undisclosed amount of investment. Goss says he and his team will meet with each company to establish an investment.
The companies that were recognized by Wavemaker were: Healium, Ejenta, Emergency Medical Innovation, and Nest Collaborative.
Lastly, Ignite itself had $27,500 cash awards to give out to the pitch competition winners. The funds will be distributed between the winners. OncoRes took first place, Abilitech came in second place, and Obatala Sciences took third place.

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