At a time when the coronavirus crisis is impacting most facets of business, biotech startups are standing up to the virus. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

At a time when the business world is reeling, biotech companies are still hanging on. Many biotech startups have successfully pivoted their entire platforms to focus on coronavirus-related work.

Of course, these companies aren't without their struggles. Clinical trials have come to a pause, finding investors has become more difficult and financing rounds have been surceased.

Even then, there are many biotech startups that have managed to snag government loans via the Paycheck Protection Program among other financial assistance. According to Vivian Doelling, the vice president of emerging company development at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, COVID-19 has not impacted the bio science industry as much as it has others.

"Some of the smaller biotech companies have pivoted research to be more COVID-centric. This is also true particularly for companies with open platforms or who were developing products in the antiviral space," Doelling told BioSpace, an online biotech publication.

"To add to that, there are research organizations that are receiving more pandemic-centric business from biotech. And that includes clinical trial work," she continued.

Ongoing biotech challenges

It's no surprise that there have been some concerns regarding the delay of clinical trials for products that have nothing to do with coronavirus. It is feared that the delays might create product pipeline problems in the long run. See, companies usually file patent applications before trials even start. So, delays in clinical trials, according to Doelling, "could take up a big chunk of the time in which treatments can have patent exclusivity before generic competition intensifies."

Delays negatively impact smaller biotech startups. These startups' futures typically rely on the success rate of trial outcomes. Any delay in these trials subsequently hurts the small biotech startup. But, even then, the pandemic still doesn't seem to be affecting these startups.

Investment blues

"The expectation is investors are going to hold back more funds than they projected for their portfolio companies. There could be less funding available for new investments," expressed Doelling. However, it is her belief that biotech companies are hot investments right now, and sees new investments on the horizon.

"Investors are cautious at the moment," said Marty Rosendale, the CEO of the Maryland Tech Council, to BioSpace. "They're going to analyze their own portfolio to make sure those companies are solid."

Rosendale, echoing Doelling's investment concerns, says investors want to be more careful right now. They are making it a point to invest less money, which makes it difficult for startups seeking funding.

Keep on keeping on

Many startups are continuing to operate because they've found their rhythm in the virtual workplace. "I have not come across any biotech startup that has closed its doors during the pandemic," Rosendale said. "Sure, some have faced delays and temporarily stopped operations, but overall, haven't heard of any closing for good."

There are a few forces at play when it comes to helping biotech startups stay afloat during the pandemic storm. Landlords are forgiving rent and government loans are helping companies pay employees. "I know of companies that have been out there fundraising since the beginning of the COVID crisis. And they're still out there doing it," Rosendale said. "But I still haven't heard of one company that was forced to end or even delay a round of funding, not one."

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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.


Celltex is looking into using stem cells to treat COVID-19, and the Houston biotech company just got the green light to go to trials. Photo courtesy of Celltex

Houston biotech company gets FDA greenlight to move forward with COVID-19 stem cell treatment

coronavirus cure?

A Houston-based biotech company announced last week that it has gotten the approval it was seeking from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to continue testing its COVID-19 treatment that uses stem cells.

Celltex has received approval from its Investigational New Drug application, or IND, to look into stem cells — specifically Autologous Adipose Tissue-Derived Mesenchymal Stem Cells, or AdMSCs — and their effect on COVID-19 patients.

"The FDA's approval of our IND is not only a critical milestone for Celltex, but also for everyone who has been affected by COVID-19," says David G. Eller, Celltex chairman and CEO. "I am optimistic that our findings will result in favorable outcomes that will improve lives today and for generations to come."

Celltex has been in the stem cell business for nearly a decade and has treated patients with debilitating diseases like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, rheumatoid arthritis, and more. Eller says he's been considering how Mesenchymal Stem Cells, or MSCs, could be used amid the pandemic.

"Throughout the entire pandemic, MSCs have shown promise for combatting symptoms and complications associated with COVID-19, and as the nation's leading commercial MSC banking and technology company, Celltex has the unique ability to transition these initial findings into a clinical trial," Eller says.

The FDA clearance will allow for a phase two trial "that will evaluate the safety and prophylactic efficacy of AdMSCs against COVID-19," according to the release. There will be 200 patients across multiple centers that will be involved in the placebo-controlled study.

Celltex offices out of the Galleria area and has laboratory operations of its wholly-owned Mexican subsidiary are located in Hospital Galenia in Cancún, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Last year, Celltex planned an expansion into Saudi Arabia and also has a presence in Europe.

Pulmotect is headed to clinical trials to verify how its drug fights against COVID-19. Getty Images

Houston biotech company gets green light from FDA to test coronavirus-fighting drug

clinical trials bound

Houston biotech company Pulmotect Inc. has embarked on two clinical drug trials that could create weapons for the battle against the novel coronavirus.

Pulmotect gained permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to test its inhaled drug, PUL-042, as a way to prevent coronavirus infections and to slow the early progression of COVID-19, the potentially fatal disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Pulmotect developed PUL-042 to activate the lungs' front-line defense against respiratory infections, and now it's being enlisted in the race to devise coronavirus treatments and cures.

"We have demonstrated PUL-042's unique ability to stimulate the immune system in the lungs to protect against a wide range of pathogens in multiple animal models," Dr. Colin Broom, CEO of Pulmotect, says in a May 7 release. "Pulmotect is optimistic that its immune-stimulating technology could be useful in mitigating the threats of [the coronavirus] and future emerging pathogens, and protecting vulnerable populations."

Unlike a vaccine, which typically takes 10 to 15 years to bring to the market, PUL-042 promises much faster deployment as scientists and health care workers wage war against COVID-19.

Each of the two clinical trials, both in the second phase, is being conducted at 10 sites across the U.S., including locations in Houston. In all, 20 sites are participating. Money for the trials came from the company's recently completed $12 million round of series B funding.

Pulmotect's partner in the trials is Covington, Kentucky-based CTI Clinical Trial and Consulting Services Inc. PARI Respiratory Equipment Inc., whose North American headquarters is in Midlothian, Virginia, is supplying medical equipment known as nebulizers to administer Pulmotect's inhaled drug.

"Both clinical trials are placebo-controlled to objectively evaluate safety and efficacy," Broom says in a May 5 release.

"In the first study, up to four doses of PUL-042 or placebo will be administered to 200 subjects by inhalation over a 10-day period to evaluate the prevention of infection and reduction in severity of COVID-19. In the second study, 100 patients with early symptoms of COVID-19 will receive the treatment administered up to three times over six days. In both trials, subjects will be followed up for 28 days to assess the effectiveness and tolerability of PUL-042."

Previous experiments conducted by Pulmotect indicate PUL-042 effectively protects mice against severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which are caused by coronaviruses that differ from the COVID-19 virus. Researchers performed those tests at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

PUL-042 initially was developed to fight respiratory problems in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, which weakens the immune system. But the drug offers the potential to prevent or treat an array of respiratory infections caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi.

"We have always considered PUL-042 to have the potential for the prevention and treatment of emerging epidemics and pandemics like the one we currently face," Broom says.

A separate trial of PUL-042 is underway in London. There, the drug is being tested on patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who are susceptible to lung infections. COPD is an inflammatory disease that blocks airflow from the lungs. People with COPD face a heightened risk of conditions like heart disease and lung cancer, the Mayo Clinic says.

Researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center and Texas A&M University invented Pulmotect's PUL-042, which holds patents in 10 countries. Pulmotect, founded in 2007, emerged from Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio, which fosters early stage companies in the life sciences sector.

These Houston startups have created health care-related solutions amid the coronavirus outbreak. Getty Images

These 7 Houston health tech companies are providing COVID-19 solutions

startups to the rescue

It's all hands on deck in Houston in the battle against coronavirus — and local biotech startups have risen to the occasion.

From mental health solutions and online portals to virtual medicine and new treatments, these Houston companies have recently launched or pivoted to new options in health care.

Mental Health Match

Ryan Schwartz is offering free counseling to Texans. Photo courtesy of Mental Health Match

Mental Health Match, a Houston-based startup that uses tech to easily connect people to mental health professionals, has announced the opportunity for 100 Texas residents to get their first appointment free and remotely.

The company cites data that shows:

  • A 78 percent increase in Texans who are concerned about their marriage
  • A 71 percent increase in Texans concerned with their parenting or their children
  • A 35 percent spike in Texans feeling panicked

"You might be practicing social distancing, but you are not alone. It is easier to make it through this together if you can get support and guidance from a skilled professional. That's why we're working with therapists across Texas to provide a free session to individuals who need it most," says Ryan Schwartz, founder of Mental Health Match, in a news release.

Texans can apply for the free sessions online on a first-come, first-served basis.

Medical Informatics Corp.

Medical Informatics Corp.'s Sickbay platform can monitor patients from afar. Photo via michealthcare.com

Houston-based Medical Informatics has created a virtual ICU program, called Sickbay, and the tech tool is being used to remotely monitor patients in Houston Methodist. The program works around the clock from a control hub to use artificial intelligence and algorithms to monitor patients.

The company, which recently moved into its office in TMCx+, announced major growth in January, just ahead of the coronavirus outbreak.

"We designed our Sickbay platform to give lost data back to doctors, nurses and other members of the care team so they could save more lives," says Vincent Gagne, vice president of product for MIC, in a news release. "In fact, our apps are built in collaboration with our clients, such as Texas Children's Hospital and Houston Methodist. Having these facilities blocks away from our headquarters accelerates that collaboration and development."

MolecularMatch

MolecularMatch is bringing together COVID-19 information and trials. Photo via molecularmatch.com

MolecularMatch, a Houston startup focused on clinical informatics, has launched a free portal that accumulates research and clinical trials for COVID-19. The company is a tenant of TMCx+ and a portfolio company of Houston-based venture capital group GOOSE.

"The number of therapeutic cures and vaccines being tested are growing at an astounding rate," says Eric Pulaski, CEO at MolecularMatch, in a news release. "Our tools make it easier for clinicians and patients to find the help they need. Hopefully, we can help save lives by shortening the time it takes to get more patients into clinical trials and by speeding up research to find cures and vaccines."

The product uses the company's artificial intelligence-backed curation platform and is updated every two to three days.

Luminare

Luminare Inc. pivoted to quickly create an online COVID-19 screening tool, and local governments have tapped into the resource. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Founded in 2014, Houston-based health care software startup Luminare Inc. seeks to prevent sepsis, a life-threatening reaction to a host of infections that causes about one-third of U.S. hospital deaths. Recently, though, Luminare pivoted to address another health concern — the threat of the novel coronavirus.

After the novel coronavirus surfaced, Luminare retooled its sepsis-detection platform to create a free online self-assessment test for people who suspect they've contracted the virus. The test, available at CheckForCorona.com, helps someone figure out whether they should seek a coronavirus test.

An online screening typically takes less than two minutes. The confidential, secure assessment complies with guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Based on your assessment results, you might be directed to contact your local health department or, in the worst-case scenario, call 911. Click here to read more.

Manatee

Manatee users can sign up for three months free. Photo via getmanatee.com

Denver-based Manatee was just announced to be selected for the 2020 TMCx cohort, and — while programming is beginning virtually — the startup will be enroute to Houston as soon as it's safe. Manatee focuses on providing connected, everyday therapy for kids.

In light of the effects of COVID-19 on both parents and children, Manatee has allowed users to register for three months free. Individuals can apply online.

Moleculin Biotech Inc.

Houston-based Moleculin, which works on oncology treatment, has filed a patent for its treatment to battle the coronavirus. Getty Images

Houston-based Moleculin Biotech Inc., a clinical stage pharmaceutical company that typically focuses on cancer treatment, announced that it has filed for a new patent for its use of one of its products to be used against the coronavirus and other potential viruses.

This patent application is for Moleculin's WP1122, and the company has entered into a partnership with a major Texas university to advance its research.

"We've actually been working on the antiviral potential of WP1122 for some time now," says Walter Klemp, Moleculin's chairman and CEO, in a news release, "but the rise of COVID-19 has obviously placed a new sense of urgency on what we are doing. We hope to be generating animal data on WP1122's antiviral potential in the near term."

Pulmotech Inc.

Pulmotect, a clinical-stage biotechnology company based in Houston, is testing a drug that could be useful in mitigating the threats of the coronavirus, which is currently been recognized as a global health emergency. Getty Images

Experiments conducted by clinical-stage, Houston-based biotechnology company Pulmotect Inc. show its PUL-042 inhaled drug has proven effective in protecting mice against two types of coronavirus: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Researchers performed those tests at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

In the Galveston experiments, a single inhaled dose of PUL-042 protected lab mice from the SARS virus, and it greatly reduced the amount of virus in their lungs after the mice became infected with SARS or MERS.

"With the risks of virulent coronaviruses and other threats increasing, as shown by the recent outbreak in Wuhan that has already spread from China to other countries including the United States, Pulmotect is optimistic that its immune-stimulating technology could be useful in mitigating the threats of current and emerging pathogens and protecting vulnerable populations," says CEO Dr. Colin Broom in a news release. Click here to read more.

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Fitness tech platform expands to Houston and plans to hire

new to hou

When a global technology company focused on fitness and wellness was looking for a city to open their fourth office in the United States, the team wanted a community that was active and full of young professionals. They landed on Houston.

Membership-based fitness and wellness company ClassPass is opening a local office in Houston and is planning on hiring over 20 professionals across departments — from analytics, customer experience, design, and engineering, to marketing, partnerships and product.

Rachel Moncton, vice president of global marketing for ClassPass, has already relocated to Houston to lead the new office.

"Houston is a friendly, community-focused city with a rich talent pool. We are thrilled to contribute to the Houston economy by creating new opportunities for professionals with varying skill sets, and hope to build a local team with a broad range of experiences and backgrounds," says Moncton says in a news release.

Headquartered in New York City, ClassPass's membership and mobile application connects members to fitness and wellness appointments at over 30,000 studios and 11,500 wellness venues. In Houston, ClassPass has over 900 partners.

Currently, the company has 400 employees worldwide with offices in Missoula, Montana, and San Francisco. ClassPass's new hires will work remotely at first, and the organization is hoping to open a physical office later this year.

"It's great to see another Bay Area company expanding to Houston like Nuro, Bill.com, and Homebase," says Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential. "ClassPass is already using the HTX Talent jobs board to build its Houston team and we hope to work more with them as they build their presence here."

The app has 900 fitness and wellness partners in Houston already. Image courtesy of ClassPass

Harris County rolls out new COVID-19 vaccination waitlist

WORTH THE SHOT

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced a new COVID-19 vaccine waitlist on January 25, in an effort to ensure those who are high priority don't get overlooked and make for a smoother process.

Hidalgo explained the basics of how the waitlist will work. She was joined by Dr. Sherri Onyiego, the interim local health authority for Harris County Public Health.

The waitlist, which can be found at ReadyHarris, is said to be weighted and randomized, meaning the website won't necessarily favor whoever has the quickest internet connection. Once the portal opens Tuesday, January 26, everyone will be able to register.

If you fall under the 1A, 1B or seniors groups, then your registration will be weighted for priority, and it will then be randomized within the priority list.

The launch of this new portal and waitlist expands the previous process by allowing eligible residents to sign up for vaccines on their own directly, according to a press release from the county.

Eligible residents without internet access can also call 832 927-8787 once the portal is live to be placed on the waitlist.

If you do not fall under those three groups, you will still be able to register, but it means you'll be on a waitlist for when the vaccine opens to the general public.

In addition to the new portal, the public health department will also be launching a COVID-19 vaccine data hub. The hub will show vaccine availability, distribution, and other demographic data.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap. For more on this story, including updates, visit our news partner ABC13.

Looking for VC funding? This Houstonian says to connect with venture fellows

guest column

Every venture capitalist is searching for the next greatest startup that can change the world — as well as provide a sizable return on their investment. Everyone knows this. And because everyone knows this, most entrepreneurs are sending their pitch decks and executive summaries to venture associates and deal leads. But, I'd like to propose that every entrepreneur who's interested in raising capital begin to pitch their startups to venture fellows, college-aged students who work with investment firms.

I am a venture fellow at New Stack Ventures where my main objective is to source investment opportunities. During my tenure as a venture fellow, I have been sifting through online resources — from Crunchbase and AngelList to LinkedIn — with the hopes of finding a really neat startup that would earn an investment from New Stack Ventures.

A few weeks ago, Crunchbase had run dry of Houston startups that I hadn't reviewed. Because of this deal drought, I posted in the Houston Startups Facebook Group, asking if anyone had any startups that might fit our pre-filter criteria, and I was introduced to 15 startup founders in a matter of minutes. I posted again in the Austin and Dallas/Fort Worth Startups Facebook Groups with similar results.

These experiences showed me that there are several hidden startups that need funding. And there are several venture fellows that need to meet deal quotas and strongly desire to source a startup that earns an investment from their firm. So, perhaps, we could marry these two groups and help them both succeed.

Here are three tips for connecting with venture fellows.

1. Find your firm fit.

VC-RANK.com allows you to compile a list of best-fit venture capital firms for your startup. You can begin with your curated list. You likely won't find venture fellows on the firm's "Team" or "About Us" pages, so you might have to do some digging by looking at the firm's LinkedIn page and their employees.

If your curated list of VC firms doesn't happen to have venture fellows, you can always try reaching out to venture fellows from these firms: Open Scout, Ripple Ventures, .406 Ventures, Crescent Ventures, Alley Corp, and Fin Venture Capital.

2. Share your startup with several venture fellows.

Through a quick LinkedIn message, you can share your startup by including your company website, your contact email address, and your basic raise information (i.e. How much have you previously raised? How much are you raising right now?).

3. Await further communication.

I can't speak for all venture fellows, but most of us are just college kids who have been given the opportunity to learn a whole lot at VC firms. Contacting venture fellows can be a great (and low-risk) way to get your company's name immediately on the list of potential investment opportunities for your ideal firm. And, you would be helping any venture fellow out by making the effort.

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Christa Westheimer is a Rice University student and the managing director at Rice Ventures. She is a current venture fellow at Chicago-based New Stack Ventures.