Guest Column

Houston and former space rival are advancing biotech startups

Formerly competitors and collaborators in the space race, Houston and Huntsville, Alabama, are now moving the needle on biotech. Getty Images

Before scientists flocked to Boston and Silicon Valley; a tech boom occured in the American south that served as a defining moment for the United States: the Space Race.

At the time, two cities were the epicenters of mankind's desire to elevate its existence into the stars. Astronauts controlled the path of rockets that were built in Huntsville, Alabama, while radioing back and forth with Mission Control in Houston, Texas.

Today, the two cities are still aligned, but the final frontier is closer to home. Houston and Huntsville are currently flourishing in the scope of biotechnology, using the innovative research of thousands of scientists, academics, and clinicians to further human knowledge

Houston is the home to the world's largest medical center — the Texas Medical Center, or TMC — and an impressive community developing cutting-edge companies ranging from med to biotech. However, Huntsville is hot on its heels.

Turning an infrastructure initially dedicated to aerospace and aeronautical innovation into an emerging bioscience hub, Huntsville boasts around 50 biotech companies and a genomic research institute. The ecosystem has the highest concentration of STEM workers per capita in the country and is rallied around a collaborative research environment that boasts an impressive tech portfolio, including resident companies like Blue Origin, Facebook, and Google, while still managing to embody southern hospitality.

Mirroring the concerted efforts of the past, my Houston-born startup, Van Heron Labs, has recently taken a leap of faith in moving much of their laboratory operations to Huntsville, while many core team members remain in Houston. Being frustrated with the options for available and affordable lab space in Houston, the completely bootstrapped Van Heron Labs decided to stretch one foot into Alabama while the other stays rooted in the TMC ecosystem.

One positive upside to the shift to remote work in light of the COVID-19 pandemic are new opportunities for company employees, investors, and mentors to be physically separated, while collaborating and retaining productivity. These new dynamics of distance have allowed Van Heron Labs to expand their technical operations while maintaining ties to Houston.

VHL has recently moved into the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, where they continue to develop their technology surrounding improved culture media, which hasn't changed much since scientists saw the publication of the first Peanuts comic. Recently, VHL has established a collaborative partnership with fellow Huntsville biotech Foresight Biosciences, and the two will be exploring a wealth of industries together.

Despite the distance, VHL still continues heavy involvement in the Houston ecosystem. My co-founder, Alec Santiago, is the current Director of non-profit, Enventure, and uses his experiences of establishing a biotech startup to help prepare the students around him to do the same.

Additionally, VHL currently has 17 interns, including current and former University of Houston students, Rice University graduate students, and even a local physics PhD. VHL has also long been in talks with companies in TMC, where they have established connections dedicated to growth. Ultimately, they hope to bridge the two cities and help give each access to new ideas, resources, funding, and mentorship.

Too often, emerging biotech startups struggle to get off the ground, and a lack of capital limits what could grow to be great ideas. To foster the growth of innovators around the nation several cities are primed to step in and welcome researchers. Institutions within Alabama's biotech ecosystem are leading the movement.

For just $188 a month, biotech startup companies located at HudsonAlpha campus can enjoy their own office space, and access to tailored programming which includes commercial IP assessments, regular investor forums and pitch opportunities, membership in supporting bioscience organizations, discounted laboratory supplies, as well as help with public relations, human relations, finding mentors, capital, and legal help.

VHL has taken full advantage of these opportunities, while maintaining a presence in Houston, and urges others to do the same. The lifting of our nation's innovators as a whole is a positive movement, and one that can increase access to many bright minds. Just as in the space race, working together regardless of geography can offer unlimited potential and may even take us to an entirely new plane.

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Rebecca Vaught is the co-founder of Van Heron Labs.

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Building Houston

 
 

The immersive new exhibit will now open next year. Image courtesy of Houston Zoo

Houstonians eager to meet sea lions, giant tortoises, sharks, and Humboldt penguins at the Houston Zoo will have to wait a bit longer, the zoo announced.

Galápagos Islands, the highly immersive Houston Zoo experience showcasing one of the most pristine, ecologically rich areas in the world, will not open until early 2023.

The Galápagos exhibit is part of the zoo’s 100th anniversary celebration and was slated to open fall of this year. Zoo officials cite supply chain issues for key construction materials — such as acrylic viewing panels for the state-of-the-art sea lion habitat — as the reason for the delay.

This planned exhibit is the first of its kind to showcase the wildlife of the legendary island chain that Charles Darwin studied and made famous.Guests can dive into an environment evoking the archipelago’s unique landscapes and oceanic habitats — all meant to inspire intrigue and preservation.

One major draw should be the Galápagos penguins, which are threatened by overfishing, ocean pollution, and climate change and are highly protected by the Ecuadorian government. It is the most threatened penguin species in the world, the zoo notes, with an estimated population of less than 2,000 individuals.

The Galápagos is often heralded as the planet’s ultimate area spotlighting unique species, the delicate balance of ecosystems, and the pressing need for conservation action, the zoo notes.

“We’re disappointed that the project has been delayed, but we know we’re not alone in experiencing supply chain problems,” said Houston Zoo president and CEO Lee Ehmke in a statement. “Our commitment to conservation in the Galápagos Islands, our animal residents, and our guests here in Houston remain unwavering. A short delay in our exhibit opening will not deter us from our mission of connecting communities to animals, inspiring action to save wildlife.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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