The Texas Medical Center's ACT program is making sure the most-promising cancer research makes it to its life-saving commercialization stage. Photo via tmc.edu

How do you bring promising cancer research to the masses? TMC Innovation's Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics was established with that question in mind.

Funded by a $5 million grant from CPRIT, or the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, in 2019 and in collaboration with the Gulf Coast Consortia and the University of Texas Medical Branch, the first cohort began their intensive work in 2021. The deadline to join the next cohort is October 13.

Since its inception, ACT has seen the forming of 19 companies — two of which have been awarded CPRIT seed grants, along with four in contention for one this year — as well as $92 million in dilutive funding and $10 million in non-dilutive funding.

“We’ve recruited investigators and companies from the breadth and width of the state of Texas, so all the way from Lubbock to Galveston from Dallas to the Rio Grande Valley,” Ahmed AlRawi, program manager, tells InnovationMap. “We've had an amazing set of investigators who have gone through the program — 56 teams to be precise.”

AlRawi says that the first pillar of the program is education. To that end, the cohort works with entrepreneurs in residence like Michael Torres. Best known as the co-founder of ReCode Therapeutics, Torres says that one of his greatest passions lies in translating science into medicines. ReCode is a genetic medicines company that is currently clinical-stage. It’s raised more than $300 million in the last two years, certainly something to which scientist-entrepreneurs earlier in their careers would aspire.

A longtime resident of Dallas, Torres moved his family to Houston last year, calling it “the place to be for cancer startups in Texas.”

Initially, says Torres, Houston wasn’t on his radar. But thanks to a call from ACT external advisor Dan Hargrove, Torres realized that the city might be a fit for him and his goals.

“I wanted to find a project that I could help support, sort of take my experience as a cofounder and help guide the next great startup within the ecosystem,” he says.

Torres and AlRawi agree that the biggest successes to come out of ACT so far include March Biosciences, a company from the first cohort, which is focused on developing CAR-T cell strategies to help combat hematological cancers; CPRIT fundee, OmniNano Pharmaceuticals, which uses patented nanotechnology to co-deliver a pair of therapeutical agents to solid tumors; and the latest, CrossBridge Bio.

Part of the most recent cohort, Torres has joined Drs. Kyoji Tsuchikama and Zhiqiang An as the last company’s CEO. To that end, he’s partnered with the world-class researchers out of UT Health Houston to build a next-generation antibody drug conjugate company that he believes will produce “better and safer and more effective drugs than what's currently on the market today.”

All the more reason that Torres he’s glad to have moved to Houston at what he calls “a really exciting time.” He’s thankful for the Texas Medical Center and the relationships it fosters. “We're all sort of aligning on creating a sustainable biotech ecosystem,” he says. And the next big cancer fighting company may well emerge from ACT.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.