best of the rest

MassChallenge Texas names its top 10 companies in its Houston cohort

These are the 10 finalists heading to MassChallenge's virtual awards program next month. Photo courtesy of MassChallenge

Boston-based MassChallenge has named its top picks from its second Houston cohort ahead of its awards event. This year's programming, due to the pandemic, was held completely online.

"Great entrepreneurs don't let a crisis go to waste: this cohort was assembled from virtually every industry across 13 different countries and through the twists and turns, their passion became a beacon for the future," says Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge Texas in Houston. "These top startups represent the best qualities of all of us: resilient, ingenious, and able to push ourselves further than we think we are capable. They embody the entrepreneurial spirit that brings hope and progress to society."

The 10 companies — which represent the top 18 percent of the cohort — will now compete in a final round of judging for up to $250,000 in equity-free cash prizes. The winners will be revealed at the 2020 MassChallenge Virtual U.S. Awards, which will be held online.

The 2020 MassChallenge Texas in Houston top 10 finalists are:

  • B2B Pay, based in Helsinki, Finland, is a fintech startup with a multi-bank platform.
  • FloodFrame, based in Richmond just outside of Houston, is a self-deploying flood protection system that can be easily installed to existing houses.
  • Healium, based in Columbia, Missouri, is an extended reality device created for self-management of anxiety.
  • Houston-based Integricote uses nanotechnology research that originated from the University of Houston in the treatment and fortification of materials like wood and concrete.
  • Ozark Integrated Circuits Inc., based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, specializes in problem solving using technology and software in the harshest environments – from jet engines to earth orbit.
  • Houston-based PATH EX Inc. is focused on the rapid diagnosis and treatment of sepsis through a pathogen extraction platform.
  • PREEMIEr Diagnostics, based in Southfield, Michigan, created a way to identify which premature infants need an adjustment to their glucose levels to prevent them from losing vision.
  • Scout Inc., based in Alexandria, Virginia, is developing the first commercial in-space satellite inspection service.
  • Sunnydale, California-based Sizzle is using artificial intelligence to automatically create gaming highlights for the billion gaming viewers.
  • Starling Medical, based in Houston, has tapped into tech to optimize urinary catheter for patients with neurogenic bladder dysfunction.

The 54-company cohort, which is the second based in Houston since the program's launch last year, was challenged early on — much like the other MassChallenge cohorts — to pivot to virtual acceleration over the four-month experience.

Robert Pieroni, director of Economic Development for Central Houston, which was part of the group that worked to bring MCTX to Houston, says he sees a need for this type of accelerator now more than ever.

"MassChallenge's work sources ground-breaking ideas from around the world and invites them into an inclusive village surrounded by a network of tools, resources, and opportunities that help founders accelerate and scale their business to solve humankind's boldest challenges head-on," he says. "The addition of virtual and the rise of distributed teams in response to the pandemic will make it easier for startups to launch and build businesses anywhere."

MassChallenge's Houston cohort will be one of a few featured at the virtual awards event on October 22 at 4 p.m. Headliners for the event include Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, and Linda Pizzuti Henry, managing director of the Boston Globe, and Chris Denson of Innovation Crush will be the host. For more information about the event and to register, visit the MassChallenge website.

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Building Houston

 
 

Allterum Therapeutics Inc., a portfolio company of Fannin Innovation Studio, is using the funds to prepare for clinical trials. Photo via Getty Images

Allterum Therapeutics Inc. has built a healthy launchpad for clinical trials of an immunotherapy being developed to fight a rare form of pediatric cancer.

The Houston startup recently collected $1.8 million in seed funding through an investor group associated with Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio, which focuses on commercializing biotech and medtech discoveries. Allterum has also brought aboard pediatric oncologist Dr. Philip Breitfeld as its chief medical officer. And the startup, a Fannin spinout, has received a $2.9 million grant from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas.

The funding and Breitfeld's expertise will help Allterum prepare for clinical trials of 4A10, a monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of cancers that "express" the interleukin-7 receptor (IL7R) gene. These cancers include pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and some solid-tumor diseases. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted "orphan drug" and "rare pediatric disease" designations to Allterum's monoclonal antibody therapy.

If the phrase "monoclonal antibody therapy" sounds familiar, that's because the FDA has authorized emergency use of this therapy for treatment of COVID-19. In early January, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced the start of a large-scale clinical trial to evaluate monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of mild and moderate cases of COVID-19.

Fannin Innovation Studio holds exclusive licensing for Allterum's antibody therapy, developed at the National Cancer Institute. Aside from the cancer institute, Allterum's partners in advancing this technology include the Therapeutic Alliance for Children's Leukemia, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children's Hospital, Children's Oncology Group, and Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Although many pediatric patients with ALL respond well to standard chemotherapy, some patients continue to grapple with the disease. In particular, patients whose T-cell ALL has returned don't have effective standard therapies available to them. Similarly, patients with one type of B-cell ALL may not benefit from current therapies. Allterum's antibody therapy is designed to effectively treat those patients.

Later this year, Allterum plans to seek FDA approval to proceed with concurrent first- and second-phase clinical trials for its immunotherapy, says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Fannin Innovation Studio, and president and CEO of Allterum. The cash Allterum has on hand now will go toward pretrial work. That will include the manufacturing of the antibody therapy by Japan's Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, which operates a facility in College Station.

"The process of making a monoclonal antibody ready to give to patients is actually quite expensive," says Varadhachary, adding that Allterum will need to raise more money to carry out the clinical trials.

The global market for monoclonal antibody therapies is projected to exceed $350 billion by 2027, Fortune Business Insight says. The continued growth of these products "is expected to be a major driver of overall biopharmaceutical product sales," according to a review published last year in the Journal of Biomedical Science.

One benefit of these antibody therapies, delivered through IV-delivered infusions, is that they tend to cause fewer side effects than chemotherapy drugs, the American Cancer Society says.

"Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-produced molecules engineered to serve as substitute antibodies that can restore, enhance or mimic the immune system's attack on cancer cells. They are designed to bind to antigens that are generally more numerous on the surface of cancer cells than healthy cells," the Mayo Clinic says.

Varadhachary says that unlike chemotherapy, monoclonal antibody therapy takes aim at specific targets. Therefore, monoclonal antibody therapy typically doesn't broadly harm healthy cells the way chemotherapy does.

Allterum's clinical trials initially will involve children with ALL, he says, but eventually will pivot to children and adults with other kinds of cancer. Varadhachary believes the initial trials may be the first cancer therapy trials to ever start with children.

"Our collaborators are excited about that because, more often than not, the cancer drugs for children are ones that were first developed for adults and then you extend them to children," he says. "We're quite pleased to be able to do something that's going to be important to children."

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