Van Heron Labs, founded at TMC, raised a $1.1 million seed round led by FoodLabs. Photo via Getty Images

A biotech company that was founded at the Texas Medical Center in Houston has raised fresh funding to support its goal of innovating new technologies for a healthier humanity.

Van Heron Labs, based in Huntsville, Alabama, raised a $1.1 million seed round led by FoodLabs, a European investor and venture studio for food, health, and climate. The startup taps into genomics, bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology to improve how cells are cultured and harnessed with the mission to address critical industrial and global challenges with biotechnology.

“Van Heron Labs looks forward to using the generous support and funding from FoodLabs to advance our goal of making biological innovation better, faster, and cheaper," Rebecca C. Vaught, founder and CEO of Van Heron Labs, says in a news release. "By fueling the new bio-economy, we feel that our customers can optimize their systems and bring technologies to overcome critical global challenges to market."

Van Heron Labs, which was founded by Vaught, Alec Santiago, and Nithin Parsan in February 2020, originally launched with its cell-focused platform to support COVID-19 pandemic response. The company's cell-based applications also include cancer therapeutics and food and materials production.

“We are excited to lead the funding round in Van Heron Labs, as we firmly believe that their innovative approach to optimizing cellular nutrition has the potential to revolutionize multiple industries, including biopharma, biomanufacturing, foodtech, and agriculture,” Julius Strauss, investor at FoodLabs, says. “We are excited to be partnering with Dr. Rebecca Vaught and her team as they continue to push the boundaries of innovation in the bio-economy.”

The funding will go toward supporting existing and new product lines.

Van Heron Labs' automated flagship platform uses bioinformatics and advanced AI tools to discover the optimal cellular fuel. This information can be used to personalize the customers’ culture media to provide more excellent quality, efficiency, and scalability, per the company.

Formerly competitors and collaborators in the space race, Houston and Huntsville, Alabama, are now moving the needle on biotech. Getty Images

Houston and former space rival are advancing biotech startups

Guest Column

Before scientists flocked to Boston and Silicon Valley; a tech boom occured in the American south that served as a defining moment for the United States: the Space Race.

At the time, two cities were the epicenters of mankind's desire to elevate its existence into the stars. Astronauts controlled the path of rockets that were built in Huntsville, Alabama, while radioing back and forth with Mission Control in Houston, Texas.

Today, the two cities are still aligned, but the final frontier is closer to home. Houston and Huntsville are currently flourishing in the scope of biotechnology, using the innovative research of thousands of scientists, academics, and clinicians to further human knowledge

Houston is the home to the world's largest medical center — the Texas Medical Center, or TMC — and an impressive community developing cutting-edge companies ranging from med to biotech. However, Huntsville is hot on its heels.

Turning an infrastructure initially dedicated to aerospace and aeronautical innovation into an emerging bioscience hub, Huntsville boasts around 50 biotech companies and a genomic research institute. The ecosystem has the highest concentration of STEM workers per capita in the country and is rallied around a collaborative research environment that boasts an impressive tech portfolio, including resident companies like Blue Origin, Facebook, and Google, while still managing to embody southern hospitality.

Mirroring the concerted efforts of the past, my Houston-born startup, Van Heron Labs, has recently taken a leap of faith in moving much of their laboratory operations to Huntsville, while many core team members remain in Houston. Being frustrated with the options for available and affordable lab space in Houston, the completely bootstrapped Van Heron Labs decided to stretch one foot into Alabama while the other stays rooted in the TMC ecosystem.

One positive upside to the shift to remote work in light of the COVID-19 pandemic are new opportunities for company employees, investors, and mentors to be physically separated, while collaborating and retaining productivity. These new dynamics of distance have allowed Van Heron Labs to expand their technical operations while maintaining ties to Houston.

VHL has recently moved into the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, where they continue to develop their technology surrounding improved culture media, which hasn't changed much since scientists saw the publication of the first Peanuts comic. Recently, VHL has established a collaborative partnership with fellow Huntsville biotech Foresight Biosciences, and the two will be exploring a wealth of industries together.

Despite the distance, VHL still continues heavy involvement in the Houston ecosystem. My co-founder, Alec Santiago, is the current Director of non-profit, Enventure, and uses his experiences of establishing a biotech startup to help prepare the students around him to do the same.

Additionally, VHL currently has 17 interns, including current and former University of Houston students, Rice University graduate students, and even a local physics PhD. VHL has also long been in talks with companies in TMC, where they have established connections dedicated to growth. Ultimately, they hope to bridge the two cities and help give each access to new ideas, resources, funding, and mentorship.

Too often, emerging biotech startups struggle to get off the ground, and a lack of capital limits what could grow to be great ideas. To foster the growth of innovators around the nation several cities are primed to step in and welcome researchers. Institutions within Alabama's biotech ecosystem are leading the movement.

For just $188 a month, biotech startup companies located at HudsonAlpha campus can enjoy their own office space, and access to tailored programming which includes commercial IP assessments, regular investor forums and pitch opportunities, membership in supporting bioscience organizations, discounted laboratory supplies, as well as help with public relations, human relations, finding mentors, capital, and legal help.

VHL has taken full advantage of these opportunities, while maintaining a presence in Houston, and urges others to do the same. The lifting of our nation's innovators as a whole is a positive movement, and one that can increase access to many bright minds. Just as in the space race, working together regardless of geography can offer unlimited potential and may even take us to an entirely new plane.

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Rebecca Vaught is the co-founder of Van Heron Labs.

Rebecca Vaught started her biotech company just ahead of COVID-19, but she shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast that it's meant more opportunities than challenges. Photo courtesy of Van Heron Labs

Entrepreneur hopes to bring microbiology into the future with her Houston-based, pandemic-founded startup

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 40

While startups everywhere are struggling to adapt in the tumultuous times of COVID-19, Rebecca Vaught and her company, having launched just ahead of the pandemic, don't actually know any other way of existing.

After watching some of her friends thrive in Houston's life science ecosystem, she knew Houston was the place she wanted to start the company that she'd been envisioning and plotting for years. She took a chance on the city, moved in, and began Enventure's Biodesign accelerator. The program shutdown as COVID-19 spread, much like other programs, but Vaught wasn't going to let that stop her momentum.

"A lot of people probably would have seen that as the stopping point but that was actually the beginning of the company," Vaught says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "What it allowed us to do was actually establish the lab and do the hard work."

As Vaught says, the biotech company, Van Heron Labs, is what it is thanks to the pandemic — not just in spite of it.

"While it's been challenging, the pandemic — in a lot of ways — is the only thing we've ever known and it's a lot of reason why the company has taken off and been successful," Vaught says on the show.

She runs the company with co-founder Alec Santiago and a team of 17 interns — all located across the country. Vaught herself is currently residing in Huntsville, Alabama, after struggling to find lab space in Houston. However, the relocation has been a blessing in disguise.

"Both ecosystems are extremely unique and both bring something different to the table," she says. "My next mission, through my lived experience, is igniting or uniting the Houston and Huntsville biotech ecosystems."

On the episode, Vaught explains how the two cities — each representing key parts of space exploration history and burgeoning tech scene — complement each other. She also shares her plans for growth and the need to bring microbiology into the future.

Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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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.