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 HTX TechList is officially launched, and the Houston Exponential team is calling for everyone to register on the site. Screenshot via htxtechlist.com

Houston Exponential has hit launch on the HTX TechList, and now startups, investors, entrepreneurial hubs, and corporations can officially opt into the data-focused and networking-enabled platform.

The HTX TechList went live yesterday, August 13, at a virtual event hosted by HX. (Note: InnovationMap was the media partner for the event.) The platform acts as a one-stop shop for Houston's innovation ecosystem. Mayor Sylvester Turner joined the stream to explain the role the platform will play in connecting the various players within the industry.

"The HTX TechList is our city's leading resource for in-depth information about Houston startups, investors, hubs, and corporations," Mayor Turner said at the event. "Within the Houston region, the HTX TechList will build the connections and density that were never before possible in such a huge spread-out city."

Another benefit to the new platform, as HX Chief of Staff Serafina Lalany says, is the data it is going to be able to provide about the ecosystem.

"We needed a centralized datasource classifying startups, investors, startup development organizations, and corporate innovators," she says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was not any good resource on the internet that was verified, centralized, and adhered to a data standard."

The platform, which has derived from an initiative from Startup Nation Central in Israel, has already proven its usefulness abroad and has over 70,000 monthly users. In a panel at the event, Eran Levy of Enel Innovation Hub Israel described how the tool has benefitted him and his work in scouting startups.

"The ability to have a tool to map, in our case, 8,000 startups, when we look for specific categories or a specific tech area, it helps us a lot," he says. "It saves a lot of time and effort, and, more importantly, it makes it much more effective because I reach out to the right startups."

On the panel, Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures and chair of Houston Exponential, echoed the opportunity for connectivity the platform will enable — but in a specific way for her organization as an investor.

"I view the TechList as the tool that's going to enable a couple of things. One is the scouts to access even more opportunities, but I think the other piece is also for co-investors in startups to be able to find us," she says, adding that while CTV has been around for a couple decades, visibility is always something they'd like to improve on.

Now that the platform is launched, anyone can join to make a profile on the site. Startups, investors, hubs, and corporations can also launch profiles that will be vetted by HX's data team.

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