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.

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Building Houston

 
 

Forbes has identified 1,000 entrepreneurs as rising stars in the business world. And three of them call Houston home. Photos via Forbes

Three Houston entrepreneurs are basking in the national spotlight.

The trio — Vernee Hines, Carolyn Rodz, and Siddhartha Sachdeva — were just named to Forbes' Next 1000 list of the country's up-and-coming entrepreneurs. They're among the 250 standouts who make up the second installment of this year's Next 1000 class.

Forbes says the year-round Next 1000 initiative "showcases the ambitious sole proprietors, self-funded shops, and pre-revenue startups in every region of the country — all with under $10 million in revenue or funding and infinite drive and hustle."

Forbes accepts nominees for Next 1000, and then "top business minds and entrepreneurial superstars" pick those who make the final cut. Among those minds are LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman; baseball legend Alex Rodriguez; Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook; and Carla Harris, managing director of Morgan Stanley.

"Americans are launching new companies at a historic rate, aided by the accelerated shift in the way we live and work and an influx of technological tools that made it easier for anyone to start their own business from anywhere," Maneet Ahuja, senior editor of Forbes, says in a news release. "The latest class of Next 1000 entrepreneurial heroes offer hope for the future as we emerge from the pandemic on the path towards economic recovery."

Hines, Rodz, and Sachdeva are the initiative's three Houston representatives in the summer 2021 group.

Hines co-founded UpBrainery Technologies with Ghazal Qureshi in 2020. UpBrainery operates a tech ecosystem aimed at disrupting educational and classroom norms through the use of proprietary technology, according to Forbes.

UpBrainery's marketplace provides an AI-driven software platform and research-based, results-driven curriculum to students, parents, teachers, and organizations. So far, UpBrainery has helped more than 5,000 students. Clients include Whataburger, Nasdaq, the Houston Rockets, the Girl Scouts of America, and Girls Inc.

"Because I deeply understand curriculum and the theory of education, I understand the biases marginalized students face every day, and I co-founded UpBrainery with the goal of eliminating historical education biases, leveling the playing field for underrepresented students, and providing a technology solution that reaches even the most disconnected student," Hines says on her company's website.

Rodz co-founded Hello Alice with Elizabeth Gore in 2017 as an accelerator for women-owned businesses. Today, the Hello Alice online platform serves as a one-stop shop for all aspiring entrepreneurs, connecting them with funders, services, and professional networks, Forbes explains. To date, it has raised $8.5 million in funding.

"Hello Alice is what I wish I had when I started my first business 15 years ago," Rodz told the Golden Seeds website in 2020. "After a career in investment banking, I made a long, hard, expensive transition into entrepreneurship. It wasn't until I sold that company that I realized how much I learned."

"When I started a second business, I discovered networks and opportunities I didn't know about the first time, and doors opened up," she added. "With Hello Alice, our goal was to put all entrepreneurs on an equal footing, giving them the knowledge, opportunities, and connections they need to thrive from day one."

Sachdeva founded Innowatts in 2014. The company offers an AI-powered SaaS platform that helps electricity providers operate more efficiently and transition toward sustainable energy, Forbes says. Innowatts has raised nearly $27 million in funding.

"The COVID-19 crisis has brought challenges for the energy sector, but there will always be a need for accurate forecasting and real-time intelligence," Sachdeva says in a recent news release. "Innowatts has flourished by using its groundbreaking AI technologies to help customers build resilience and cope with the unprecedented shifts in power consumption caused by the pandemic."

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