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

When it comes to venture capital invested in the first quarter of 2019, Houston raked in less than 10 percent of what Austin reported, but the state as a whole has seen an increase, according to Crunchbase. Getty Images

While the state marked significant growth in first quarter venture capital investments year over year, Houston fell far behind its Texas sister cities. Houston startups received just 10 percent of what Austin startups reported, and Houston lost its lead it's had on Dallas for two quarters, according to Crunchbase data.

Texas had a reported $790.4 million in Q1, per Crunchbase, which is up from Q4 2018's $530.6 million as well as being up year over year from $587.2 million in Q1 of 2018. The number of deals for the state was cut almost by half — 64 Q1 2019 deals compared to 118 in Q1 of 2018 — "indicating larger investment sizes as the state's startup market continues to mature," according to Crunchbase's Mary Ann Azevedo.

Meanwhile in Houston, the city's startups received $44.7 million of that reported investment last quarter, which is down from the $121.4 million reported in Q4 2018. Austin raked in $493.8 million — more than 10 times that of Houston — and Dallas reported $245.4 million, which more than doubles what they reported for Q4 of 2018.

Houston lost its lead it had on Dallas for the past two quarters. In Q4 of 2018, Houston outdid Dallas with $121 million in venture capital investment, according to Crunchbase. Before that, Houston crushed Dallas in the third quarter too with $138.8 million compared to Dallas' $38.1 million. That quarter was when Houston came close to Austin's VC funding.

The largest deal in Houston was for biotech startup, Solugen, which closed its $13 million Series A in March, Cruncbase reported, and Y Combinator contributed to the round.

The Crunchbase report mentioned a few huge deals that tipped the scale this time around for Austin and Dallas. Dallas-based Peloton Therapeutics closed a $150 million Series E round in February. In Austin, Disco — a company founded in Houston but relocated to Austin — closed a $83 million Series E round, and Austin's Billd drew in $60 million in a Series A.

Houston's cut shrinks

Houston's piece of the Texas VC pie continues to shrink. In Q3 2018, the city had a third of the funds and, in Q4, had over 20 percent.Via Crunchbase News

Dallas is back at No. 2

Dallas came back with a vengeance after being outdone by Houston for the past two quarters.Via Crunchbase News