digital disease detective

Houston-based biotech company aims to revolutionize cellular dissection technology

iBiochips was awarded a $1.5 million grant in September to help develop a new technology that delivers data about the cell's genetic makeup and reports abnormalities. Getty Images

Innovative Biochips, a Houston-based biotechnology company, is one step closer to commercializing technology that the company hopes will provide an opportunity for researchers to detect diseases earlier.

The company was founded three years ago by Dr. Lidong Qin, a professor at the Houston Methodist Research Institute's department of nanomedicine. He launched iBiochips as an independent faculty startup that licensed technology from Houston Methodist. Qin says he wanted to engineer and manufacture devices that focus on revolutionizing single-cell isolation and genetic analysis.

Qin says it can be difficult to launch a biotech startup in Houston, since the industry requires hefty initial funds to open a facility, get patents and hire a team of researchers.

"In the Houston area, even though it looks like it's a lot of state money (grants) around, it's very limited, and that's been a challenge of ours," Qin says.

But with the help of a $1.5 million investment from a private investor, Qin was able to launch iBiochips in 2015, and shortly after opened his own lab on Kirby Drive.

Recently, iBiochips was awarded a $1.5 million grant in September from the National Institutes of Health's Small Business Technology Transfer program. The grant will further support the company's research and development of an automated yeast dissection chip, which is designed to perform a raw analysis of single cells and deliver data about the cell's genetic makeup and report abnormalities.

Prior to the phase two grant, iBiochips was also awarded NIH's phase one grant of $225,000 in September 2017 to develop a prototype for the company's flagship cell isolation product, the Smart Aliquotor.

The Smart Aliquotor is a single-cell isolation dissection platform that allows scientists to analyze larger amounts of cells at a much faster rate than traditional isolation methods, Qin says. He says the system is also more convenient for researchers to operate because traditional cell isolation techniques require a lot of human effort.

To isolate the cells with a Smart Aliquotor, a scientist would take a patient's blood sample and inject it into a single point in the device. The blood sample would then travel through microfluidic channels into the device's 60 to 100 isolated holes, Qin says.

"In three days, we can handle about one million cells," Qin says. "In a traditional approach, people can handle only one or two cells in three days. So that is how we came to the [idea of the] chip can help a scientist do 20 years of work in three days."

The Smart Aliquotor can then be examined with iBiochips' newly funded automated dissection chip, which Qin says has the potential to detect cancer or infectious diseases earlier than before.

"If you isolate a cell by itself — even in the very beginning stage when the aggressive cells are not as dominating yet — you can still see that [abnormality in the sample]," Qin says.

iBiochips' products are currently only being manufactured for research use at clinical labs, universities and pharmacies. However, with the recent grant award, Qin says the company's research team plans to spend the next three to five years preparing the products for worldwide commercialization.


Dr. Lidong Qin is a professor at the Houston Methodist Research Institute's department of nanomedicine. He launched iBiochips as an independent faculty startup that licensed technology from Houston Methodist.Courtesy of Lidong Qin

As a a part of its annual Inc. 5000 findings, the magazine named Houston the ninth hottest startup city in America. Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

It's not just Texas' weather that's hot. Three Lone Star State cities made Inc. magazine's list of hot startups cities — and Houston came in at No. 9.

The list came out of the Inc. 5000 report — the magazine's list of the fastest-growing 5,000 privately-held companies in the United States. The list was ranked by the three-year revenue growth of each of the cities' companies.

Houston had a three-year revenue growth 117 percent with 84 Houston companies on the 2019 Inc. 5000 list.

"After Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, the Houston area's construction industry grew tremendously to help rebuild and repair the storm's damage," the short ranking blurb reads, mentioning two Inc. 5000 companies in Houston: oil pipeline services company JP Services (No. 792) and contractor services firm CC&D (No. 1,973).

Houston beat out Dallas (No. 10) by just 4 percent three-year revenue growth and 10 Inc. 5000 companies. The article calls out Dallas for its "low regulations, zero corporate income taxes, and the Dallas Entrepreneur Center, or DEC, which is a nonprofit organization serving as a hub for startup networking, funding, and mentorship."

Meanwhile, Austin, which ranked No. 2 on the list, had a three-year revenue growth 259 percent, and has 87 Inc. 5000 companies this year. Austin was praised for its "high rate of entrepreneurship and job creation" in the article, as well as for having outposts for top tech companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google.

Here's the full list:

  1. San Francisco
  2. Austin
  3. New York City
  4. San Diego
  5. Atlanta
  6. Denver
  7. Los Angeles
  8. Chicago
  9. Houston
  10. Dallas

Earlier this month, Business Facilities magazine named Houston the fourth best startup ecosystem in the U.S., as well as the fourth best city for economic growth potential. Similarly, Commercial Cafe recently named Houston a top large city for early stage startups.

Susan Davenport, senior vice president of economic development for the Greater Houston Partnership, previously told InnovationMap that it's the city's diversity that keeps the city growing and resilient.

"The region's steady population increases, coupled with our relatively low costs of living and doing business, bode well for our economic growth potential reflected in this ranking," Davenport says.