growing a cure

Houston-area company is harvesting plant technology for treatment of chronic diseases and COVID-19

At a research facility just outside of Houston, scientists have found a plant that has COVID-19 treatment potential. Photo courtesy of iBio

The original version of this story included some factual inaccuracies due to misinformation from a source. The story below has been corrected.

In a 130,000 square-foot facility outside of Bryan-College Station, iBio is growing the makings of new types of therapeutics for fibrosis, cancer, and even COVID-19.

The company, which moved its headquarters from New York to Texas in July, uses novel biopharma methods to produce the vital molecules and antigens used for vaccines and other types of medical treatments through plants in a fast, sustainable way.

Other methods of creating biopharmaceutical require scientists to engineer cells to create a desired protein, which can be one of the most time consuming parts of the process, IBio's CEO Tom Isett explains. However, through iBio's FastPharming method, the team let's the plants do most of the work.

IBio introduces an Agrobacterium carrying a desired gene to manipulate the plant's DNA.

"[The bacteria] takes over the machinery of the plant leaves and it then produces the protein of interest or the biopharmaceutical that we were going to want to make for people," Isett says.

IBio then harvests the leaves and purifies the proteins to make the biopharmaceutical of interest. The entire process can save anywhere from six to 18 months in development, he estimates.

Too, if there's demand for more of the product, through this process, all scientists need to do is grow more plants.

"We have a linear scale up, it's very straightforward," says Peter Kipp, iBio's VP of translational science and alliance management. "And using some of the other competing methodologies, as you go to a bigger scale, you have new technical problems that you have to solve, but we don't."

The team discovered that an Australian species of the tobacco plant could be one of their biggest conduits in their process.

"It just grows like a weed. And that's why we like it," Kipp says.

The plant expends most of its energy in creating its leaves, where IBio extracts most of its proteins from. The plants are grown in the company's indoor, vertical hydroponic facility and are able to be harvested about every six weeks, and (it's important to note) does not contain nicotine.

IBio used their FastPharming process to introduce two vaccine candidates and a therapeutic in about six week's time. However, Isett says they're not just a COVID-19 vaccine company.

"We're mostly focused in other areas. But when [COVID] showed up, we did want to go in and see if we could address it using the speed of our system," he says.

Trending News

Building Houston

 
 

2020 brought over $700 million in venture funding deals into Houston, and startups saw larger deals in the first half of the year with a growing interest in angel activity. Image via Getty Images

Houston startup's venture capital deals continue to grow in 2020, according to a new report from Houston Exponential. Last year, VC dollars were up, while deal count was down, representing more mature deals coming into the ecosystem — but the second half of the year was defined by a growth in angel investment interest.

The report by Serafina Lalany, chief of staff for HX, found that the Bayou City brought saw $715 million across 117 VC deals, according to Pitch Book data. It's the fourth year Houston has seen VC growth, and last year the city reported over $563 million across 168 deals.

"Houston has put concerted efforts into building its innovation ecosystem," says Harvin Moore, president of HX, in a release, "and 2020's record-breaking results show we are seeing not only resilience in the tech sector, but a significant increase in the rate of formation and success of growth-stage companies, which have an outsized effect on our local economy in terms of high paying job potential and Houston's increasing attractiveness as a great place to work."

Last August, HX published a report on the first half of the year and that study found that Houston — facing the challenges of both the pandemic and the oil price drop — managed to see a 7 percent increase in funding compared to the national average of 2.5 percent. With the second half of the year, the city's VC increase from last year was over 25 percent and up 252 percent since 2014.

The other difference between the first and second halves of the year for Houston VC was the stages of the deals made. Most of Houston's larger deals took place in the first and second quarters — and even the beginning of Q3 — of 2020:

But the second half of the year seemed like Houston's earlier stage VC activity returned, and Blair Garrou, managing partner at Houston-based Mercury Fund, confirmed this to InnovationMap on the Houston Innovator's Podcast in December.

"Seed rounds have definitely bounced back. We're seeing a lot of seed activity, because there's been a lot of seed funds raised," Garrou said on the podcast, adding that he's observed an increase in angel investment interest. "People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software."

In her report, Lalany found that in Houston, angel investments are out-pacing seed, creating a "competitive environment."

"The addition of multi-stage and nontraditional investment firms into the arena has created upward pressure in deal valuations and sizes. The average seed round in 2015 was $1 million, whereas today it's double that," the report reads. "With these firms turning inward to focus on protecting their current investments at the start of the pandemic, the propensity for smaller, more riskier investments have declined."

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network, said she's seen a rise in new membership for the organization. Last August, she was on track to get to 150 members — up from just 60 in 2018.

"Despite COVID, we've continued to grow," Campbell told InnovationMap, adding that she's heard investors express that they have more time now to dive in. "People are very much still interested in learning about deploying their capital into early-stage venture. They're looking for a network of like-minded individuals."

In contrast to this early stage activity, the VC activity that was still occurring was defined by larger deals. With VC essentially halting in March and April — especially in cities like Houston, Garrou adds — it makes sense that investors wanted more "sure things" and would invest more funds into companies they already know, versus being able to source new deals in person.

"When you go to later stages, there are a lot fewer deals going on," Garrou continues on the podcast. "Now, there may be larger investments being made, but I think they are into fewer companies, and I think that's just due to the the pandemic and the ability just to not be able to do face-to-face."

As Houston moves through 2021, the city is poised well for more growth and a continued diversification from just oil and gas, as Moore says in the release.

"Houston Exponential was created four years ago by civic and business leaders to deal with an existential problem: our dependence on the energy and medical sector without a thriving startup culture to lead us towards a future that will look very different from the past," he says. "COVID and the de-carbonization movement have made that need much more urgent — it's both a huge challenge and an enormous opportunity."

Trending News