Eye on Ion

Rice University's Midtown innovation hub dubbed The Ion takes shape

The historic Sears building in Midtown will transform into The Ion, a Rice University-backed hub for innovation. Courtesy of Rice University

Houston's innovation district is one step closer to the Midtown hub it was promised early last year. Rice University announced the construction details of the historic Sears building's transformation into The Ion, as it's now called.

"We chose the name Ion because it's from the Greek ienai, which means 'go'" says Rice University president David Leebron in the release. "We see it as embodying the ever-forward motion of discovery, the spark at the center of a truly original idea. It also represents the last three letters in many of the words that define the building's mission, like inspiration, creation, acceleration and innovation."

Construction on the 270,000-square-foot building will begin in May, according to Rice's release, and is expected to conclude by the end of next year. The cost of the project wasn't disclosed with the announcement. The building will serve as a coworking space, provide resources for entrepreneurs and startups, and host events, the release says, as well as offer retail space for restaurants and entertainment amenities.

"I gleefully applaud this next giant step in the creation of an innovation hub that will take Houston closer to becoming a world leader in data science and digital technologies" says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "As I said last year when the idea was unveiled, we have to leap, not stroll, into the economic frontier. Now the physical transformation of The Ion will help get us there."

Leading the project is the Rice Management Company, and Rice will provide academic programming, along with other educational institutions including the University of Houston, UH-Downtown, the University of St. Thomas, Houston Community College, Texas Southern University, Houston Baptist University, San Jacinto College, and the South Texas College of Law. Station Houston has been named as the programming partner and will have a huge presence in the hub.

"The Ion will inspire open innovation between universities, global corporations and investors," says Gabriela Rowe, CEO of Station Houston, in the release. "Students and faculty members from institutions like Rice University and the University of Houston will coexist and collaborate with scientists from Houston's other great institutions. Investors and corporations will meet face to face with startup entrepreneurs. Together, at The Ion, they will transform Houston into a thriving, connected, high-tech ecosystem."

Houston-based Hines was listed as the developer, and other dealmakers include New York-based SHoP Architects, James Carpenter Design Associates, James Corner Field Operations, and Gensler's Houston office. The Ion's transformation will include removing the '60s-era metal cladding, but the structure will maintain its original art deco façade.

This is the first phase of development for Houston's innovation district — a 16-acre plan for Midtown, according to the release, and the district will also feature housing, public spacing, and important infrastructure.

"We are eager to contribute to an enhanced quality of life for residents and visitors of Midtown Houston," said Matt Thibodeaux, executive director of Midtown Houston. "The Midtown innovation district is an embodiment of our shared community vision to give professionals and families a means of seizing opportunity as Houston continues to grow as a leading city in technology."

Courtesy of Rice University

Houston-based Moleculin has three different oncology technologies currently in trials. Getty Images

Immunotherapy and personalized medicine get all the headlines lately, but in the fight against cancer, a natural compound created by bees could beat them in winning one battle.

In 2007, chairman and CEO Walter Klemp founded Moleculin Biotech Inc. as a private company. The former CPA had found success in life sciences with a company that sold devices for the treatment of acne. That introduction into the field of medical technology pushed him toward more profound issues than spotty skin.

"Coincidentally, the inventor of that technology had a brother who was a neuro-oncologist at MD Anderson," Klemp recalls.

The since-deceased Dr. Charles Conrad slowly lured Klemp into what he calls the "cancer ecosphere" of MD Anderson. In 2016, the company went public. And it looks like sooner rather than later, it could make major inroads against some of the toughest cancers to beat.

Klemp observed that while Houston has the world's largest medical center, "the tragic irony" is that other cities have far more biotech money ready to be invested.

"The Third Coast is really starved for capital," he says. "What drew me into this was I was one of the few entrepreneurs that lived here that knew the ropes in terms of tapping into East and West Coast capital structures and could make that connection for them."

The company has three core technologies currently being tested with some success, but the most promising is called WP1066, named for researcher Waldemar Priebe, "a rock star" in his native Poland, according to Klemp, who works at MD Anderson. Though Priebe came to the U.S. in the 1980s, he is still an adjunct professor at the University of Warsaw and conducts some of his trials in Poland because it's easier to get grant money there.

WP1066 uses propolis, a compound of beeswax, sap and saliva that bees produce to seal small areas of their hives, as a base. The molecular compound that Priebe discovered affects STAT3 (signal transducer and activator of transcription), a transcription factor that encourages tumor development. In short, the active compound in WP1066 both downregulates the STAT3, a long-time Holy Grail in the cancer research world, and directly attacking the tumor, but also quieting T Cells, which allows the body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. Essentially, it works both as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

WP1066 is demonstrating drug-like properties in trials at MD Anderson on glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that recently took the life of the hospital's former president, John Mendelsohn, as well as John McCain and Beau Biden. It is also being tested against pancreatic cancer, one of the most virulent killers cancer doctors combat.

Priebe also created Annamycin, named for his oldest daughter, a first-line chemotherapy drug that fights Acute Myeloid Leukemia without the cardiotoxicity that can damage patients' hearts even as they beat their cancer.

WP1122 uses yet another mechanism to fight cancer.

"Most people don't know that morphine is essentially a modified version of heroin," Klemp explains.

The difference between the poppy-based drugs? Heroin can cross the blood-brain barrier. It's described as the dicetyl ester of morphine. WP1122 is the dicetyl ester of 2DG (2-Deoxyglucose), a glycolysis inhibitor, which works by overfilling tumor cells with fake glucose so that they can't consume the real glucose that makes them grow.

"The theory is, we could feed you so full of junk food that eventually you'd starve to death," Klemp elucidates. It can cross the blood-brain barrier and is metabolized slowly, meaning that it can be made into a drug in a way that 2DG cannot.

What's impressive about Moleculin is its diversity of drugs. Most companies have one drug that gets all or most of the attention. Moleculin has strong hopes for all three currently in trials.

"It's essentially multiple shots on the goal," says executive vice president and CFO Jonathan Foster.

Moleculin has 13 total employees, five of whom are based in Houston. An office in the Memorial Park area serves as a landing pad for employees and collaborators from around the world to get their work done when in Space City. The virtual office set-up works for the company because experts can stay in their home cities to get their work done. And that work is on its way to saving scores of lives.