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New TMC Innovation Institute director to focus on continued growth ahead of TMC3

Tom Luby will run the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute. Courtesy of TMC

Tom Luby is in his first week as TMC Innovation Institute director, but it's safe to say he's hit the ground running. The former head of JLABS @ TMC is ready to continue the growth of the institute as well as open up new doors to funding and the rest of the world.

"My hope is that I can be helpful to all the parties here to continue to recruit and grow great startups here," Luby says. "Critically important, too, is additional funding and bringing that here. And all of us are working together toward the successful launch of TMC3."

Luby spoke with InnovationMap about what all he has on his plate and how he plans on making Houston known for its life sciences.

InnovationMap: After working for Johnson & Johnson in Boston, when did you relocate Houston?

Tom Luby: In 2017, when the opportunity came up that I can join the team in Houston and grow our JLABS at TMC, I jumped at the chance, moved my family down to Houston, and have loved it ever since. I've loved the life science startup community here — it's small, but growing quickly — and what it has to offer to our family in terms of the diversity, the friendliness of people, the ease of getting to know people, and, obviously, the weather. When you come from the northeast, the Houston weather is nice.

IM: Boston has this major life science innovation reputation. How do we get Houston to have that same reputation?

TL: It's not very fair to compare Boston and Houston. The Boston life science community is around 40 years in the making. There's been a focus on that for a very long time, and as a result of all the startup activity through the '80s, '90s and into the 2000s, Boston has seen an influx of almost all the major pharmaceutical and biotech companies. All of them have footprints there because they want to be close to the startups. So, that mix of startup activity being embedded with lots of corporates has created a bit of a yin and yang situation — corporates are looking to pull the products from the startups into their pipelines and the startups have pulled talent from the corporates.

Houston's in a different place than that. If you roll the Boston tape back lets say 20 years where Boston was focused on generating a place where life science startups could have a chance to develop and be successful, that's where Houston is. We've gotten to a point where we're starting to see a really good density. Over the past four years, over 250 companies have touched down here at some point. That type of density is needed then to do that second part and recruit some of the larger health care corporations.

IM: Coming from J&J, what expertise do you feel like you are bringing to the table?

TL: What I hope to be helpful with is providing an overall strategic vision around TMC Innovation that allows us to scale from what's already been done here. Like I just mentioned, there have been 250 companies that have been here at some point in the past four years. That doesn't happen without the great efforts of those that came before me — the TMCx team in particular, but the JLABS team, the Biodesign team down the hall have created a really interesting and rapidly growing place for health care startups.

IM: What are some of your goals for the TMC Innovation Institute?

TL: In the short term, what we're going to focus on making sure that when people show up to the TMC Innovation Institute, they have a great experience, whether they are engaged with TMCx, biodesign, JLABS, etc. So, it's important for us to be well coordinated, working cooperatively together, and everyone focused on being service first when it comes to the startups here. What we hope to create is an environment where startups come and have an experience that leaves them knowing that that experience gives them the best chance at being successful. In addition, as we begin to engage with partners who can provide venture capital and angel funds, it's the same thing, that they come here and have an efficient, coordinated experience.

So short term, it's pulling it all together so that when you think of TMC Innovation, you know what it is, how it's organized and what our mission is. We'll also be making additional efforts to engage with the member institutions in TMC, and that they understand that we're a resource to them.

IM: The current TMCx cohort is the most international to date. Between that and the new focus on TMC's biobridges, why is a global presence so important to TMC Innovation?

TL: Biobridges are about making sure that important geographies outside the US understand that the TMC is a place where their startups can come and be successful.

It's important for TMC to use the bridge to gain insight and access into specific areas that we feel that those countries have core strengths in. Australia and its clinical trials networks is a great example of that. Our companies having access to tap into that is incredibly important. We know that those bio bridges will benefit our startups and give the startups there a chance to have access to us.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Expanding into foreign markets is tempting, but strategic fit can determine success or disaster. Photo via Getty Images

You built your business from the ground up, patiently finding techniques and products that work, carefully crafting solid bonds with your clients. Then one day a new project, opportunity or simple request poses a question: Is it time to branch out overseas?

Of the welter of questions to consider, the first and most important involves location: not just the physical location of the prospective expansion site, but the cultural differences between a firm's home country and its new destination. Secondly, key company traits need to be considered in choosing the investment locations. Is your firm large or small? Young or old? Finally, of pivotal importance to companies outside the United States: Is your company privately held or state-owned?

In a recent paper, Rice Business professor Yan Anthea Zhang looked closely at these three variables with Yu Li of the University of International Business and Economics Business School in Beijing, China and Wei Shi of the Miami Business School at the University of Miami. What, the researchers wanted to know, was the relation of these three features and firms' location choices for their overseas investments?

To find out, Zhang and her colleagues analyzed 7,491 Chinese firms that had recently ventured into foreign markets with 9,558 overseas subsidiaries. Because China now has become the world's leading source of foreign direct investments, the sample promised to be instructive. Thanks to the large sample size, researchers could test hypotheses relating to firm size, age, ownership and the impact of geographical and cultural distance on their location choices.

After studying the elements of geographic distance and cultural distance, Zhang and her colleagues uncovered a paradox. Companies that had an advantage in tackling one dimension of distance were actually disadvantaged — because of the same characteristic — in another dimension.

How, exactly, did this paradox work? Larger firms, with access to more resources, can "experiment with new strategies, new products, and new markets," the researchers wrote. This large size makes geographic distance less of a concern, but it comes with a ponderous burden of its own. Company culture is directly influenced by the country of origin, Zhang wrote. Transferring that culture into a completely different environment can cause the kind of shock that could lead to failure, even with financial and physical resources to ease the geographical distance. Conversely, smaller firms may be more nimble and able to adapt to needed cultural changes — but lack the resources to make true inroads in a foreign market.

A similar paradox exists for older and younger firms, Zhang wrote. A younger firm is more likely to adapt to a culturally distant country than an older firm might, even if that youth means that geographical distance is a greater logistical challenge.

State-owned firms face a similar paradox, one that comes down to the balance of resources against cultural flexibility. A company with state-generated resources may be better equipped to move a caravan people, machinery and materials to a distant new location. However, state-owned companies often typically lack the internal cultural flexibility to handle expansion to a different environment.

What does this mean for the average manager? Simply that going global demands meticulous weighing of factors. Does your firm have the practical resources to expand overseas? Does your staff have the personal flexibility and willingness to meld company culture with that of a different milieu? It's a truism that major overseas expansions require money and heavy lifting. Less obviously, managers of successful companies must thread a very fine needle: ensuring they have the material resources to get their business overseas physically, while confirming that company culture is light enough on its feet to thrive in day-to-day life in a new place.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Yan Anthea Zhang, a professor and the Fayez Sarofim Vanguard Chair of Strategy in the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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