3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Emily Reiser of Texas Medical Center Innovation, Atul Varadhachary of Fannin Innovation Studio, and Vicki Knott of Crux OCM. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to two local innovators, as well as one honorary Houstonian, across industries — energy, health care, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Emily Reiser, senior manager for innovation community and engagement for Texas Medical Center Innovation

Emily Reiser joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the latest at TMC Innovation. Photo courtesy of TMC Innovation

Over her past few years at Texas Medical Center Innovation, Emily Reiser has worked with over 1,000 startups. So, it's safe to say she knows what a good pitch looks like and what health tech startups need as far a support from mentors and experts goes.

She shares some of her advice and observations on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. She also explains how TMC Innovation is uniquely positioned to advance the best and brightest in life science innovation.

"When we think about how a startup is going to be successful, we think about how they are going to build new partnerships. But we also think about all the people they're going to need to activate and bring them to the next level," Reiser says. "What we do is curate a community of high-value resources that can help these companies elevate to that next level." Click here to read more.

Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio

Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Fannin Innovation Studio, says that now is the time to invest in life sciences. Photo via fannininnovation.com

Fannin Innovation Studio is hard at work finding, supporting, and accelerating life science innovations, but, according to Managing Partner Atul Varadhachary, the organization can be doing so much more — if only the budget allowed.

Varadhachary makes a case for tripling or even quadrupling the number of participants in Fannin's federally accredited fellowship program. He says this one relatively small investment could push Houston closer to Boston in the life sciences stratosphere.

"I can think of nothing that could give a bigger return on investment for the city," Varadhachary says of expanding Fannin's fellowship program. Click here to read more.

Vicki Knott, co-founder and CEO of Crux OCM

A Canadian software company is expanding its presence in Houston to meet the needs of its clients. Photo courtesy of Crux OCM

For six months of the year, Vicki Knott plans to take up residence in Houston. As the co-founder and CEO of Calgary-based Crux OCM, Knott saw a big opportunity to expand her control room operations automation software business — especially when she nabbed Houston-based Phillips 66 as a client.

Calgary and Houston have a lot in common, Knott says, and she sees a very natural connection to the two regions. Knott plans to work six months of the year in Houston with the local office.

"A lot of the companies that head offices in Houston, they have head offices in Calgary," she says. "If a startup in Houston is getting traction, I think there's a natural movement to start in the Calgary market and vice versa." Click here to read more.

Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Fannin Innovation Studio, says that now is the time to invest in life sciences. Photo via Getty Images

Innovation studio aims to put Houston on the map for life science startup development

fostering innovation

In a report last year from commercial real estate services company JLL, Boston took the crown for hosting the country's top life sciences ecosystem. Houston ranked 11th.

The difference between Houston and Boston "is not the innovation, it's not the technology, it's not the money. It's that we don't have experienced life sciences entrepreneurs," says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio, a for-profit entity that commercializes biotech and medtech concepts.

Fannin has tried to replicate Boston's robust life sciences ecosystem "in a really, really tiny way" via its fellowship program, Varadhachary says. But the reach of the program could be even greater, he believes.

Varadhachary makes a case for tripling or even quadrupling the number of participants in Fannin's federally accredited fellowship program. He says this one relatively small investment could push Houston closer to Boston in the life sciences stratosphere.

Atul Varadhachary is the managing partner of Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio. Photo via fannininnovation.com

To be sure, Houston is no slouch in life sciences. For instance, commercial real estate services company CBRE issued a report last fall ranking Houston second among the country's top emerging clusters for life sciences. But cities like Boston, San Francisco, and San Diego still reign as life sciences royalty in the U.S.

Fannin typically taps five people at a time — folks who've recently earned a master's degree, medical degree or PhD — for a two-year fellowship in life sciences entrepreneurship and commercialization. The initiative is comparable to a post-doctorate program in research or medicine. The Fannin fellows collaborate with therapeutics and medical device companies in the studio's portfolio, gaining hands-on training in facets of business like R&D, intellectual property, regulatory matters, and financing.

Today, five fellows and seven interns work at Fannin. The fellowship program launched in 2006; the internship program started a year earlier. In all, Fannin has welcomed more than 250 fellows and interns. Some of them have gone on to work at Houston organizations such as TMC Innovation, MD Anderson Cancer Center, and the University of Houston.

Varadhachary believes boosting the fellowship headcount to perhaps 15 instead of the current five would be a small price to pay to help elevate Houston's status in life sciences. The full cost of each fellowship is less than $100,000 a year, so bringing aboard another 10 fellows would require an extra annual commitment of under $1 million. That kind of money isn't in Fannin's budget, though.

"I can think of nothing that could give a bigger return on investment for the city," Varadhachary says of expanding Fannin's fellowship program.

More fellows would mean more entrepreneurs equipped to run or start life sciences businesses in Houston, he says. Varadhachary acknowledges the value of efforts like the soon-to-open TMC3 life sciences hub and the recently opened Ion entrepreneurship hub, but he'd like to see more emphasis placed on nurturing people and not just startups.

Varadhachary says the "the one single thing" that Houston could do to increase its probability of success in life sciences, particularly in therapeutics, would be to crank up cultivation of entrepreneurial talent.

"By and large, I don't think know that this community appreciates how important and how under-resourced that whole people-development piece is," he says. "It's not something that comes from taking classes or watching. It comes from doing."

Andrea Letkeman, director of professional development at Fannin, says the fellows initially work one-on-one with a senior executive on projects, then eventually graduate to running their own projects. Fellows also get a close-up look at other projects underway at Fannin.

Varadhachary wants to get Fannin fellows excited "about what we're doing in Houston, and then give them an opportunity to be part of our ecosystem."

Some Fannin fellows have been hired on a full-time basis by the studio, or they've moved into jobs at venture capital firms, life sciences startups, or other players in the ecosystem, according to Letkeman. She says the fellows lend "energy and vibrancy" to Fannin.

"I think that the Fannin model is fairly unique for Houston. There are models that are similar, across the country, to what we do. But there's not enough of them, quite frankly, for the number of people that are interested in these kinds of roles," Letkeman says.

"There is talent that is looking for a way to bridge the gap between academia and real-world commercialization," she adds. "There's just not enough opportunities out there for them."

Re:3D is one of two Houston companies to be recognized by the SBA's technology awards. Photo courtesy of re:3D

2 Houston startups win national technology award from SBA

winner, winner

A couple of Houston startups have something to celebrate. The United States Small Business Administration announced the winners of its Tibbetts Award, which honors small businesses that are at the forefront of technology, and two Houston startups have made the list.

Re:3D, a sustainable 3D printer company, and Raptamer Discovery Group, a biotech company that's focused on therapeutic solutions, were Houston's two representatives in the Tibbetts Award, named after Roland Tibbetts, the founder of the SBIR Program.

"I am incredibly proud that Houston's technology ecosystem cultivates innovative businesses such as re:3D and Raptamer. It is with great honor and privilege that we recognize their accomplishments, and continue to support their efforts," says Tim Jeffcoat, district director of the SBA Houston District Office, in a press release.

Re:3D, which was founded in 2013 by NASA contractors Samantha Snabes and Matthew Fiedler to tackle to challenge of larger scale 3D printing, is no stranger to awards. The company's printer, the GigaBot 3D, recently was recognized as the Company of the Year for 2020 by the Consumer Technology Association. Re:3D also recently completed The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator this year, which has really set the 20-person team with offices in Clear Lake and Puerto Rico up for new opportunities in sustainability.

"We're keen to start to explore strategic pilots and partnerships with groups thinking about close-loop economies and sustainable manufacturing," Snabes recently told InnovationMap on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Raptamer's unique technology is making moves in the biotech industry. The company has created a process that makes high-quality DNA Molecules, called Raptamers™, that can target small molecules, proteins, and whole cells to be used as therapeutic, diagnostic, or research agents. Raptamer is in the portfolio of Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio, which also won a Tibbetts Award that Fannin Innovation Studio in 2016.

"We are excited by the research and clinical utility of the Raptamer technology, and its broad application across therapeutics and diagnostics including biomarker discovery in several diseases, for which we currently have an SBIR grant," says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner at Fannin Innovation Studio.

This year, 38 companies were honored online with Tibbetts Awards. Since its inception in 1982, the awards have recognized over 170,000 honorees, according to the release, with over $50 billion in funding to small businesses through the 11 participating federal agencies.

Allterum Therapeutics Inc., a portfolio company of Fannin Innovation Studio, is using the funds to prepare for clinical trials. Photo via Getty Images

Houston biotech startup raises millions to battle pediatric cancer

fresh funds

Allterum Therapeutics Inc. has built a healthy launchpad for clinical trials of an immunotherapy being developed to fight a rare form of pediatric cancer.

The Houston startup recently collected $1.8 million in seed funding through an investor group associated with Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio, which focuses on commercializing biotech and medtech discoveries. Allterum has also brought aboard pediatric oncologist Dr. Philip Breitfeld as its chief medical officer. And the startup, a Fannin spinout, has received a $2.9 million grant from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas.

The funding and Breitfeld's expertise will help Allterum prepare for clinical trials of 4A10, a monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of cancers that "express" the interleukin-7 receptor (IL7R) gene. These cancers include pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and some solid-tumor diseases. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted "orphan drug" and "rare pediatric disease" designations to Allterum's monoclonal antibody therapy.

If the phrase "monoclonal antibody therapy" sounds familiar, that's because the FDA has authorized emergency use of this therapy for treatment of COVID-19. In early January, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced the start of a large-scale clinical trial to evaluate monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of mild and moderate cases of COVID-19.

Fannin Innovation Studio holds exclusive licensing for Allterum's antibody therapy, developed at the National Cancer Institute. Aside from the cancer institute, Allterum's partners in advancing this technology include the Therapeutic Alliance for Children's Leukemia, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children's Hospital, Children's Oncology Group, and Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Although many pediatric patients with ALL respond well to standard chemotherapy, some patients continue to grapple with the disease. In particular, patients whose T-cell ALL has returned don't have effective standard therapies available to them. Similarly, patients with one type of B-cell ALL may not benefit from current therapies. Allterum's antibody therapy is designed to effectively treat those patients.

Later this year, Allterum plans to seek FDA approval to proceed with concurrent first- and second-phase clinical trials for its immunotherapy, says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Fannin Innovation Studio, and president and CEO of Allterum. The cash Allterum has on hand now will go toward pretrial work. That will include the manufacturing of the antibody therapy by Japan's Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, which operates a facility in College Station.

"The process of making a monoclonal antibody ready to give to patients is actually quite expensive," says Varadhachary, adding that Allterum will need to raise more money to carry out the clinical trials.

The global market for monoclonal antibody therapies is projected to exceed $350 billion by 2027, Fortune Business Insight says. The continued growth of these products "is expected to be a major driver of overall biopharmaceutical product sales," according to a review published last year in the Journal of Biomedical Science.

One benefit of these antibody therapies, delivered through IV-delivered infusions, is that they tend to cause fewer side effects than chemotherapy drugs, the American Cancer Society says.

"Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-produced molecules engineered to serve as substitute antibodies that can restore, enhance or mimic the immune system's attack on cancer cells. They are designed to bind to antigens that are generally more numerous on the surface of cancer cells than healthy cells," the Mayo Clinic says.

Varadhachary says that unlike chemotherapy, monoclonal antibody therapy takes aim at specific targets. Therefore, monoclonal antibody therapy typically doesn't broadly harm healthy cells the way chemotherapy does.

Allterum's clinical trials initially will involve children with ALL, he says, but eventually will pivot to children and adults with other kinds of cancer. Varadhachary believes the initial trials may be the first cancer therapy trials to ever start with children.

"Our collaborators are excited about that because, more often than not, the cancer drugs for children are ones that were first developed for adults and then you extend them to children," he says. "We're quite pleased to be able to do something that's going to be important to children."

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Cancer-fighting company based in Houston emerges from stealth and snags $74M in its latest round

fresh funds

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."

Networking with high-status colleagues isn't successful across industries, per Rice University research

houston voices

In a timeless scene from the mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap," an 80s metal band swaggers in for a performance only to find they're billed second to a puppet show. Though the film is farce, real musicians often come to question the value of playing second fiddle to anyone – even an A-lister.

Now research by Rice Business professor Alessandro Piazza and colleagues Damon J. Phillips and Fabrizio Castellucci confirms those musicians are right to wonder. In fact, they discovered, the only thing worse than performing after a puppet may be opening up for an idol. Bands that consistently open up for groups with higher status, the researchers found, earn less money – and are more likely to break up than those that don't.

"Three cheers," The Economist wrote about the researchers, for confirming "what many people in the music industry have long suspected – that being the opening band for a big star is not a first class ticket to success."

While the findings may be intuitive for seasoned musicians, they fly in the face of existing business research. Most research about affiliations concludes that hobnobbing with high-status colleagues gives lowly newcomers a boost. Because affiliations give access to resources and information, the reasoning goes, it's linked with individual- and firm-level successes such as landing jobs and starting new ventures.

Both individuals and organizations, one influential study notes, benefit from the "sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships."

That's largely because in many fields up and comers must fight to be taken seriously – or noticed at all. This problem is often called "the liability of newness:" In order to succeed, industry newcomers first need to be considered legitimate by the audience they're trying to woo.

Showing off shiny friends is a classic solution. In many fields, after all, linking oneself with a high-status partner is simply good branding: a shorthand signal to audiences or consumers that if a top dog has given their approval, the newcomer must surely have some of the same excellent qualities.

Unfortunately, this doesn't always hold true – especially in the creative world, Piazza's team found. In the frantic world of haute cuisine, for example, a faithful apprentice to a celebrity chef may actually suffer for all those burns and cuts in the star's hectic kitchen. Unless they can create meals that are not just spectacular, but show off a distinct style, consumers may sneer at the newcomer as a knockoff of the true master.

So what determines if reflected glory makes newcomers shine or merely eclipses them? It has to do with how much attention there is to go around, Piazza said. While partnering with a star helps in some fields, it can be a liability when success depends on interaction between audience and performer. That's because our attention – that is, ability to mentally focus on a specific subject – is finite. Consumers can only take in so much at a time.

Marketers are acutely aware of this scarcity. Much of their time, after all, is spent battling for consumer attention in an environment swamped by competitors. The more rivals for advertising attention, research shows, the less a consumer will recall of any one ad. In the world of finance, publicly traded companies also live and die on attention, in the form of analyst coverage of their stocks and angel investors' largesse.

Musicians who perform live, Piazza said, are battling for attention in a field that's gotten progressively more fierce, due to lower album sales and shorter career spans. Performing in the orbit of a major distraction such as Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, however, only reduces the attention the opening act gets, the researchers found. Though performances are just a few hours, the attention drain can do lasting harm both to revenue and career longevity.

To reach these conclusions, the researchers analyzed data about the live performances and careers of 1,385 new bands between 2000 and 2005. Supplementing this with biographical and genre information about each band along with musician interviews, the team then analyzed the concert revenue and artistic survival of each band.

They discovered that in live music, high status affiliation onstage clearly diluted audience attention to newcomers – translating into less revenue and lower chance of survival.

In part, the revenue loss also stems from the fact that even in big stadium performances, performing with superstars rarely enriches the underdogs. According to a 2014 Billboard magazine report, headliners in the U.S. typically absorb 30 to 40 percent of gross event revenues; intermediate acts garner 20 to 30 percent and opening acts for established artists bring as little as $15,000.

The findings were surprising, and perhaps dispiriting, enough for the researchers to carefully spell out their scope. Affiliation's positive effects, they said, are most often found in environments of collaboration and learning – for example academia. In these settings, a superstar not only can bestow a halo effect, but can share actual resources or information. In the music world, however, the fleeting nature of a shared performance makes it hard for a superstar band to share much with a lower-ranked band except, perhaps, some euphoric memories.

Interestingly, in many businesses it's easy for observers to quickly assume affiliations between disparate groups. In the investment banking industry, for instance, research shows that audiences infer status hierarchies among banks merely by reading "tombstone advertisements," the announcements of security offerings in major business publications. Readers assume underwriting banks to be affiliated with each other when they're listed as being part of the same syndicate – even if the banks actually have little to do with each other beyond pooling capital in the same deal.

In the music business, star affiliations mainly help an opening act a) if the audience understands there's an affiliation and b) if they believe the link is intentional. But that's not always the case because promoters and others in Big Music often line up opening bands. When possible, though, A-listers can do their opening acts a solid by making it clear that they've chosen them to perform there.

Otherwise, Piazza and his colleagues concluded, the light shed by musical supernovas typically gets lost in the darkened stadium. For the long term, business-minded bands may do best by working with peers in more modest venues – places where the attention they do get, like in Spinal Tap's classic metric, goes all the way up to 11.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Alessandro Piazza, an assistant professor of strategic management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Houston data management company closes $18M in fresh funding

money moves

A Houston company that's created a centralized log management solution has closed a new round in funding.

Graylog closed its $18 million growth equity round led by Richmond, Virginia-based Harbert Growth Partners, a new investor, and Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Piper Sandler Merchant Banking, the company announced today. The round also received contribution from existing investors Houston-based Mercury Fund and Integr8d Capital, as well as Germany-based HTGF.

"This investment will enable us to accelerate our global go-to-market strategies and enhancements to the award-winning solutions we deliver for IT, DevOps, and Security teams," says Andy Grolnick, CEO of Graylog, in a press release. "We're excited to have the support of new and existing investor partners to help us realize our potential."

Andy Grolnick is CEO of Graylog. Photo courtesy

Per the release, the funds will go toward growing the company's platform that allows its users the ability to capture, store, and enable real-time analysis of terabytes of machine data.

"Graylog is well-positioned to be a long-term winner in the rapidly growing market for log management and analysis solutions," says Brian Carney, general partner of Harbert Growth Partners, in the release. "With its focus on delivering a superior analyst experience coupled with a vibrant Open Source community, the company provides customers a compelling alternative to other log management solutions plagued with high complexity and high total cost of ownership (TCO). We are thrilled to partner with the Graylog team to leverage the significant opportunity that lies ahead for the company."

Over the past year, despite the challenging business climate, the company saw growth in business and even expanded its European operations, according to the release.

"As a long-standing customer, Graylog is strategic to our success. We are excited to see new investment that will enable the company to accelerate innovation and continue to deliver excellent log management and SIEM solutions," says Rob Reiner, CTO of PROS, in the release.