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

 
 

this one's for the ladies

Texas named a top state for women-led startups

A new report finds that the Lone Star State is ideal for female entrepreneurs. Photo via Getty Images

Who runs the world? According to Merchant Maverick's inaugural Best States for "Women-Led Startups'' study, Texas is a great place for women to be in charge.

The Lone Star state cracked the top 10 on the list, earning a No. 6 spot according to the small business reviews and financial services company, which based the study on eight key statistics about this growing segment of the economy. Colorado (at No. 1), Washington, Virginia, Florida, and Montana were the only states to beat out Texas on the rankings—leading the Merchant Maverick team to conclude that "the part of the country that lies west of the Mississippi is great for startups led by women entrepreneurs."

Women-led startups in Texas received $365 billion in VC funding in the last five years, the report found. This is the seventh largest total among U.S. states. Too, about 20 percent of Texans are employed at woman-led firms, which is the fifth highest percentage among states. Roughly 35 percent of employers in Texas are led by women.

A few other key findings that work in female founders' favor: The startup survival rate in Texas is nearly 80 percent. And a lack of state income tax "doesn't hurt either," the report says.

Still there are shortcomings. On a per capita basis, only 1.27 percent of Texas women run their own business. The average income for self-employed women is also relatively low ranking among states, coming in around $55,907 and landing at 31st among others.

This is not the first time Texas has been lauded as a land of opportunity for women entrepreneurs. A 2019 study named it the best state for business opportunities for women. Houston too has proven to support success for the demographic. The Bayou City was named in separate studies a best city for female entrepreneurs to start a business and to see it grow.

Still, as many findings have concluded, the realities of the pandemic loom for all startups and small business owners. The Merchant Maverick study was careful to add: "The pandemic has changed the economic landscape over the past year, and often for the worse.

"This means that not every metric may be able to accurately gauge how a state might fare amidst the pandemic," the report continues. "To help factor in COVID's impact, we included some metrics that take 2020 into account, but it will be a while until we get a full picture of the pandemic's devastation.""

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