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Houston expert: Houston should focus on developing the region's life sciences sector

Houston needs to work on developing its life sciences infrastructure, like what the TMC3 project is providing. Courtesy of Elkus Manfredi Architects

The region's health care sector has been Greater Houston's job growth engine over the past few decades — creating new jobs at a rate 75 percent greater than the overall economy — according to research published last month in Center for Houston's Future report, Houston's Economic Future: Health Care.

But data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and Bureau of Labor suggest that in many ways the economic footprint of our health care sector is not in line with the share of employment that health care commands across the region: While health care accounts for about 12 percent of the region's jobs, it is responsible for just 5.4 percent of Greater Houston's total gross domestic product.

By comparison, our energy sector holds roughly the same share of GDP as health care, but employs about just a fifth the number of employees.

To bridge this gap, Houston should focus on developing the region's life sciences sector, a promising economic development area with a potentially high economic payoff.

The life sciences represent a trillion-dollar plus global industry spanning pharmaceutical development, medical device manufacturing, research and commercialization of biotechnology and more. The employment multiplier — a measure of the economic contribution an occupation has on the greater economy — of a life sciences job exceeds that of generic jobs in health care by 40 percent.

Modeling conducted by the Center suggests a concerted effort to develop the region's life sciences industries compared to a 'business as usual' approach would yield an additional $13.1 billion in GDP and 73,000 jobs by 2036.

Historically, this industry has clustered on the East and West Coasts of the U.S., but recent efforts signal encouraging signs of progress.

Examples include the creation of TMC3 at the Texas Medical Center, a collaborative, multi-institution effort to build a life sciences research campus; the development of Houston's innovation corridor anchored by The Ion; and investment from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), a $6 billion state program to advance cancer research efforts and promote economic development.

Greater Houston has the potential to become the so-called Third Coast if we build on momentum that's starting to take hold.

Findings from our report suggest, however, that more work is needed to advance the life sciences.

This sector continues to grow rapidly—employment in this area rose by 37 percent from 2009 to 2019. Yet, the Center identified troubling data points, including that the number of people working in biotechnology and life sciences research and development declined by 13 percent from 2018 to 2008.

Our research identified several hurdles the region still faces in cultivating our still-nascent life sciences industry. First, Houston is still energy-dominant, with limited investment capital glowing to the life sciences. We must figure out how to attract venture capital, whether it be from Boston, Silicon Valley or elsewhere, to facilitate the growth of our existing biotechnology and life sciences firms and boost the rate of startup formation.

Second, Greater Houston continues to struggle with retaining life sciences talent, businesses and intellectual property. In some of the roughly 50 interviews the Center conducted with health care subject-matter experts, we heard that some businesses in the field relocate from Texas as soon as they begin growing. We believe the region should consider developing a cross-sector push for innovation that includes effectively scaling the research catalyzed by CPRIT.

By adopting a common vision and working together to grow Greater Houston's life sciences cluster, we can boost our economy and better position our health care sector to capitalize on the myriad new health care technologies that will emerge over the next couple decades.

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Steven Scarborough is manager of strategic initiatives at Center for Houston's Future and the principal author of Houston's Economic Future: Health Care.

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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