Houston voices

Rice University professor and startup founder talks advocating for change and strategy

Robyn O'Brien joined the Liu Idea Lab of Innovation and Entrepreneurship to discuss how she's found success in advocating for change with her latest startup. Photo via robynobrien.com

Robyn O'Brien, co-founder of rePlant Capital and Rice adjunct professor, joined the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship for the first virtual Ladies who LaUNCH. RePlant Capital is working with food industry players to invest in resilient and sustainable agricultural practices. She continues working toward her goal to "make clean and safe food affordable and accessible to anyone who wants it."

After receiving an MBA from Rice, O'Brien found herself thrust into the world of food as a financial analyst. Years later when her one-year old child had a severe allergic reaction, Robyn's previous work experience in the food industry suddenly became much more personal. She dug into the data and unearthed injustice hidden in the US food industry, resulting in her book, The Unhealthy Truth. She brought to light some shocking realities about the rise in food related allergies in the US and the double standards of food quality in the US versus other international markets. Companies were selling one product in Europe with wholesome ingredients, while "the same" product in the US was made of artificial ingredients and chemicals.

As a rebel-rousing public figure, Robyn has received her fair share of push back, but she has come out of the storm more resilient and compassionate because of it. Over the course of her hour-long talk, Robyn shared some of the ways that she has been able to advocate for change, as a mom up against industry giants and those with power to silence her. A few of the strategies she has found to be fool proof are:

1. Although her story about the US food market is quite shocking, O'Brien explained that she has lead and advocated from a place of love, not fear. O'Brien reminds us, "The reason we're hurting… is because we love." Whether she's communicating with a national audience or working on a team, Robyn has found success by turning to empathy and encourages us to do the same. Even internally, when there is discourse in her team, she says, "Start with compassion."

2. Lead with data. Despite how personal the issue felt to Robyn and the anger we are justified in feeling about this issue, Robyn continually relies on the data to do the convincing as opposed to an emotional response. "Don't exaggerate… data will tell it's own story." She encourages us to do our homework, know our facts, and walk into meetings confidently.

3. You have to exercise courage daily. ""Courage is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets." And when your internal meter senses something is misaligned, listen to it. There is room for change in departments and large organizations and it takes courage to address these issues. But it also takes courage to recognize the "gut check" and acknowledge when the misalignment is too great, and to walk away.

O'Brien is a great example of sticking to your guns, even when you're up against a global industry. Now, I leave you with the challenge of taking smaller steps – plant seeds of change where you are and advocate for individuals in need.

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This article originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

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Tvardi Therapeutics Inc. has fresh funds to support its drug's advancement in clinical trials. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston-based clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company has raised millions in its latest round.

Tvardi Therapeutics Inc. closed its $74 million series B funding round led by new investors New York-based Slate Path Capital, Florida-based Palkon Capital, Denver-based ArrowMark Partners, and New York-based 683 Capital, with continued support and participation by existing investors, including Houston-based Sporos Bioventures.

"We are thrilled to move out of stealth mode and partner with this lineup of long-term institutional investors," says Imran Alibhai, CEO at Tvardi. "With this financing we are positioned to advance the clinical development of our small molecule inhibitors of STAT3 into mid-stage trials as well as grow our team."

Through Slate Path Capital's investment, Jamie McNab, partner at the firm, will join Tvardi's board of directors.

"Tvardi is the leader in the field of STAT3 biology and has compelling proof of concept clinical data," McNab says in the release. "I look forward to partnering with the management team to advance Tvardi's mission to develop a new class of breakthrough medicines for cancer, chronic inflammation, and fibrosis."

Tvardi's latest fundraise will go toward supporting the company's products in their mid-stage trials for cancer and fibrosis. According to the release, Tvardi's lead product, TTI-101, is being studied in a Phase 1 trial of patients with advanced solid tumors who have failed all lines of therapy. So far, the drug has been well-received and shown multiple durable radiographic objective responses in the cancer patients treated.

Dr. Keith Flaherty, who is a member of Tvardi's scientific advisory board and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, offered his support of the company.

"STAT3 is a compelling and validated target. Beyond its clinical activity, Tvardi's lead molecule, TTI-101, has demonstrated direct downregulation of STAT3 in patients," he says in the release. "As a physician, I am eager to see the potential of Tvardi's molecules in diseases of high unmet medical need where STAT3 is a key driver."

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