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How a shifting business model in Houston can keep health tech attractive to investors

Whatever the future holds, it’s a sure bet that health tech will remain a strong sector that attracts investors. Photo via Getty Images

Investment in health tech, in Houston and nationwide, took off in 2021. Despite a dip in funding in 2022, the sector is hardly losing its luster. In fact, it continues to attract investor attention as it evolves into a more mature, and equally exciting, market.

Health tech is especially vibrant in Houston. With a strong life sciences ecosystem, Houston is home to Texas Medical Center – the world’s largest medical research complex. That ecosystem is set to become even stronger with the completion of TMC’s Helix Park, a 37-acre life sciences campus, later this year. Couple this with analysis suggesting that Houston is the country’s third fastest-growing tech ecosystem and the future looks promising.

Houston is currently home to 339 health tech startups, according to Tracxn, ranging from companies that make apps to track cognitive health to those offering solutions for chronic disease management, and initiatives are in place to help grow the depth and breadth of that bench. For example, Texas Medical Center Innovation helps health-tech startups launch and build relationships with the state’s medical community. And, Houston Methodist has announced plans to build a digital health technology hub at The Ion, the tech-focused office and collaboration space that serves as the anchor to Houston’s innovation district.

Deloitte recently released a new Health Tech Investment Trends Report, based on data analysis of venture-capital deals in health tech, as well as interviews with investors and startup executives. The findings indicate several key shifts affecting health-tech companies and startup scenes, both here in Houston and nationwide. Namely, changes are occurring in three discrete areas: in investors’ area of focus, in the type of health challenges startups are addressing, and in the creation of a new business model for health-tech companies.

Investors seek stability. Nationwide, funding for health-tech startups dipped to $27.5 billion in 2022 from $39.3 billion in 2021, a decline of 30 percent. To be sure, a 30 percent drop in anything can cause concern, but here, it’s an indication that investors are putting more money into older, more established companies – late-stage companies received 75 percent of investments in 2022 – rather than growth companies. In Houston, startup funding overall in the first quarter of 2023 totaled $106 million across five deals, with health-tech startups nabbing 20 percent of the pie, and with an average of $21.2 million per deal.

Startups refocus. Health-tech entrepreneurs are moving away from telehealth and general mental health and moving towards specific mental-health areas, for instance those directed toward certain populations such as the elderly or women. Health equity is front and center, with both diverse founders and solutions for diverse communities attracting attention. Companies offering back-office efficiencies to healthcare providers are also garnering investor interest.

Business models shift. The news here: Toward platforms and away from pipelines. Many traditional businesses use the pipeline model. They create products and deliver them to end users, handling manufacturing, marketing, and distribution along the way. A platform model works a bit differently. It creates the product, then establishes a network of users and partners who exchange information and resources and work together to deliver products and services to the end user.

Investors seem to like platforms, as eight of the top 10 later-stage companies funded in 2022 utilize this platform model, according to Deloitte’s analysis of Pitchbook’s Health Tech Funding Database. The platform ecosystem also may be the way our healthcare system can transform from one that reacts to one that focuses on prevention and wellbeing.

In the near future, a few factors might further shape this health-tech evolution. Macroeconomics, for instance, could put more emphasis on unit economics at startups. Startups that previously sold their services to employers may increasingly look at healthcare systems as potential customers. Whatever the future holds, it’s a sure bet that health tech will remain a strong sector that attracts investors.


Kelly Redding is audit and assurance partner at Deloitte & Touche LLP. She's based in the company's Houston office.

Peter Micca is audit and assurance partner and national health tech leader for Deloitte & Touche LLP. He's based in New York.

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A research team housed out of the newly launched Rice Biotech Launch Pad received funding to scale tech that could slash cancer deaths in half. Photo via Rice University

A research funding agency has deployed capital into a team at Rice University that's working to develop a technology that could cut cancer-related deaths in half.

Rice researchers received $45 million from the National Institutes of Health's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, to scale up development of a sense-and-respond implant technology. Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh leads the team developing the technology as principal investigator.

“Instead of tethering patients to hospital beds, IV bags and external monitors, we’ll use a minimally invasive procedure to implant a small device that continuously monitors their cancer and adjusts their immunotherapy dose in real time,” he says in a news release. “This kind of ‘closed-loop therapy’ has been used for managing diabetes, where you have a glucose monitor that continuously talks to an insulin pump. But for cancer immunotherapy, it’s revolutionary.”

Joining Veiseh on the 19-person research project named THOR, which stands for “targeted hybrid oncotherapeutic regulation,” is Amir Jazaeri, co-PI and professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The device they are developing is called HAMMR, or hybrid advanced molecular manufacturing regulator.

“Cancer cells are continually evolving and adapting to therapy. However, currently available diagnostic tools, including radiologic tests, blood assays and biopsies, provide very infrequent and limited snapshots of this dynamic process," Jazaeri adds. "As a result, today’s therapies treat cancer as if it were a static disease. We believe THOR could transform the status quo by providing real-time data from the tumor environment that can in turn guide more effective and tumor-informed novel therapies.”

With a national team of engineers, physicians, and experts across synthetic biology, materials science, immunology, oncology, and more, the team will receive its funding through the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, a newly launched initiative led by Veiseh that exists to help life-saving medical innovation scale quickly.

"Rice is proud to be the recipient of the second major funding award from the ARPA-H, a new funding agency established last year to support research that catalyzes health breakthroughs," Rice President Reginald DesRoches says. "The research Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh is doing in leading this team is truly groundbreaking and could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. This is the type of research that makes a significant impact on the world.”

The initial focus of the technology will be on ovarian cancer, and this funding agreement includes a first-phase clinical trial of HAMMR for the treatment of recurrent ovarian cancer that's expected to take place in the fourth year of THOR’s multi-year project.

“The technology is broadly applicable for peritoneal cancers that affect the pancreas, liver, lungs and other organs,” Veiseh says. “The first clinical trial will focus on refractory recurrent ovarian cancer, and the benefit of that is that we have an ongoing trial for ovarian cancer with our encapsulated cytokine ‘drug factory’ technology. We'll be able to build on that experience. We have already demonstrated a unique model to go from concept to clinical trial within five years, and HAMMR is the next iteration of that approach.”

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