attracting talent

With millions in grant funds, this nonprofit is making Houston an irresistible market for cancer researchers

Since 2009, institutions in Houston have employed CPRIT grants totaling more than $390 million to successfully recruit over 125 cancer researchers. Photo via Getty Images

In their bid to attract top-notch cancer researchers, institutions in Houston compete against the likes of Harvard and Stanford universities, and the Cleveland and Mayo clinics. Super-talented cancer researchers typically can choose from among dozens of institutions vying for them.

Yet cancer research centers in Houston and elsewhere in Texas wield a powerful advantage in this contest for talent — money.

As of early November, four cancer research centers in Houston — the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Methodist Hospital Research Institute, and Baylor College of Medicine — had dangled grants totaling nearly $22 million to successfully lure nine high-profile cancer researchers this year to the Bayou City. The nonprofit Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), based in Austin, supplied the grants.

Since 2009, institutions in Houston have employed CPRIT grants totaling more than $390 million to successfully recruit over 125 cancer researchers, according to CPRIT data provided to InnovationMap. Houston has been the beneficiary of about half of all grants awarded to CPRIT scholars in Texas.

This year alone, four CPRIT scholars have landed at the UT Southwestern Medical Center as of early November, three at the Baylor College of Medicine, and one each at the Methodist Hospital Research Institute and MD Anderson Cancer Center. Each of the grants they received is around $2 million or $4 million.

According to CPRIT, Texas boasts a state-funded recruitment program for cancer researchers unmatched by another other state. Wayne Roberts, CEO of CPRIT, says the more than 250 CPRIT scholars recruited in the past 12 years throughout the state "are advancing research efforts, positioning Texas as a leader in the fight against cancer, and promoting economic development throughout the state."

Roberts is former associate vice president for public policy at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

Texans voted in 2007 to create CPRIT and invest $3 billion in the state's fight against cancer. Two years ago, Texans voted to pump another $3 billion into what now is a 20-year initiative. The institute bills itself as the largest state-based investment in cancer research in U.S. history and the world's second largest cancer research and prevention program.

Dr. Helen Heslop, interim director of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine, says the CPRIT grants give the cancer center an edge in wooing "highly sought after" cancer researchers, both senior and up-and-coming professionals. But the benefit goes well beyond that, according to Heslop.

"Having a new person who brings new skills and expertise is obviously great for the people who are working very closely with them at, say, our cancer center," she says. "But a lot of these people will also collaborate with other local institutions. … It just enriches the overall social environment between all the institutions."

On top of that, successfully recruiting high-caliber cancer researchers to Houston helps attract even more high-caliber cancer researchers, Heslop says.

Without the CPRIT grants, Houston would be less competitive in the hunt for first-rate cancer researchers, she says.

One factor that makes the CPRIT grants stand out is that they typically last five years, while other types of research grants frequently last only three years, Heslop says. This longer time span enables cancer researchers to undertake creative high-risk projects, offering them "a much longer runway to get themselves established" and then secure their own funding from organizations like the National Institutes of Health, she says. As a result, many cancer researchers who earn CPRIT grants wind up staying in Houston rather than being poached by research centers in other cities.

Dr. Qing Yi, director of the Center for Translational Research at Houston Methodist, received a $6 million CPRIT grant in 2018 that brought him back to Houston from the Cleveland Clinic's Lerner Research Institute. He specializes in research about multiple myeloma, the second most common blood cancer after non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Gen. Colin Powell, former U.S. secretary of state, was battling multiple myeloma when he died in mid-October due to complications from COVID-19.

Yi says cancer research centers in Texas couple CPRIT grants with their own funding to up the ante in the competition for cancer researchers. This one-two financial punch is "way more generous" than funding offers from cancer research institutions in other states, according to Yi.

For example, the Methodist Hospital Research Institute successfully recruited researcher Yong Lu this year with the aid of a nearly $4 million CPRIT grant, paired with a 50 percent match of the institute's own money. Lu most recently ran a research lab at Wake Forest University's medical school that focuses on a type of cancer treatment known as adoptive cell immunotherapy.

Yi says his own CPRIT grant of $6 million was matched with $4 million from Houston Methodist, giving him a total funding pool of $10 million. Before heading to Cleveland, Yi was a tenured professor of medicine at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, meaning the CPRIT grant paved the way for his return to Houston. The $10 million pot of money "made it very attractive" to accept the Houston Methodist offer, he says.

"CPRIT funding is really crucial for Texas to recruit top-notch cancer investigators into our state. It's one of the best things that Texas has done for cancer research," Yi says.

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Building Houston

 
 

Dream Harvest picked up funding to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., which specializes in sustainably growing produce, has landed a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. The facility will enable the company to dramatically ramp up its operations.

The new facility, which will be built in Southwest Houston, is scheduled for completion in January 2023. Dream Harvest’s existing 7,500-square-foot facility in Southwest Houston supplies 45 Whole Foods stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as Sweetgreen restaurants in Texas.

The company currently employs 25 people. With the addition of the 100,000-square-foot facility, Dream Harvest’s headcount will rise to 65.

Dream Harvest relies on wind-powered, year-round indoor vertical farming to generate 400 times the yield of an outdoor farm while using 95 percent less water and no pesticides.

“Because the vast majority of America’s produce is grown in California and has to be shipped over long distances, most of the country receives produce that is old, has a poor flavor profile, and a short shelf life — a major contributing factor to the more than 30 percent of fresh vegetables being discarded in the U.S. each year,” Dream Harvest says in a December 7 news release.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, says his company’s method for growing lettuce, baby greens, kale, mustards, herbs, collards, and cabbage helps cut down on food waste.

“Demand for our produce has far outpaced supply, an encouraging validation of our approach as well as positive news for our planet, which is facing the rising problem of food and resource waste,” Shauk says. “While we have the yields today to support our business, we are pleased to partner with Orion on this financing, which will enable us to greatly expand our production and increase access to our produce for many more consumers.”

Dream Harvest expects to expand distribution to more than 250 retail locations in 2022.

“Orion’s focus on sustainable infrastructure and deep experience in building large industrial facilities will be complementary to Dream Harvest’s impressive track record of being a reliable supplier to high-caliber customers by achieving consistent yields, food safety, and operational efficiencies … ,” says Nazar Massouh, co-managing partner and CEO of Orion Energy Partners, which has offices in Houston and New York City.

Other companies in the Orion Energy Partners portfolio include Houston-based Caliche Development Partners, Tomball-based Python Holdings, The Woodlands-based Evolution Well Services, Houston-based Produced Water Transfer, and Houston-based Tiger Rentals.

Zain Shauk is the co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

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