CellChorus created a visualization AI program that helps scientists to better understand the functioning of cells, including their activation, killing and movement. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston biotech company just announced a new award of $2.5 million.

CellChorus, a spinoff of the Single Cell Lab at the University of Houston, announced the fresh funding, which comes from an SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) through its National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS).

CellChorus is the business behind a technology called TIMING, which stands for Time-lapse Imaging Microscopy In Nanowell Grids. It’s a visualization AI program that helps scientists to better understand the functioning of cells, including their activation, killing and movement. This more in-depth knowledge of immune cells could be instrumental in developing novel therapies in countless disorders, including cancers and infectious diseases.

“While many cell therapies have been approved and are in development, the industry needs an integrated analytical platform that provides a matrix of functional readouts, including cell phenotype and metabolism on the same cells over time,” Rebecca Berdeaux, vice president of science at CellChorus, says in a press release. “We are grateful to NCATS for its support of the development of application-specific kits that apply dynamic, functional single-cell analysis of immune cell phenotype and function. The product we will develop will increase the impact of these therapies to improve the lives of patients.”

A two-year, $2.1 million Phase II grant will begin after the company achieves predetermined milestones under a $350,000 Phase I grant that is currently taking place. As Berdeaux explained, the funds will be used to develop TIMING kits which will manufacture analytics that provide end-users with rapid, specific and predictive results to accelerate translational research and the development and manufacture of more effective cell therapies.

TIMING is more than a great idea whose time has yet to come. It has already been proven in great depth. In fact, last June, CellChorus CEO Daniel Meyer told InnovationMap that he was initially attracted to the technology because it was “very well validated.” At the time, CellChorus had just announced a $2.3 million SBIR Fast-Track grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The company also went on to win an award in the Life Science category of the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards.

That confirmation of success comes from more than 200 peer-reviewed papers that describe myriad cell types and types of therapy, all of which used data from TIMING assays. TIMING data has benefited industry leaders in everything from research and clinical development to manufacturing. With the new grant, TIMING will become more widely available to scientists making important discoveries relating to the inner workings of the cells that drive our immunity.

OncoResponse in partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center received a portion of $73 million the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas has doled out this spring. Photo via oncoresponse.com

Seattle biotech co. to move to Houston thanks to $13.3M grant from Texas organization

CPRIT funding spotted

A biotech company has landed a more than $13 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The nearly $13.3 million grant given to OncoResponse — which is relocating from Seattle to Houston, according to CPRIT's news release — will help the company develop fully human monoclonal antibodies for treatment of cancer that otherwise would not respond to immunotherapy. OncoResponse already has a partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center, which is one of the company’s investors.

“We are thrilled to receive this recognition from CPRIT in supporting the potential of our immunotherapy candidate OR502. We greatly appreciate the additional support from our investors as we continue to make significant progress with our drug development efforts advancing immunotherapies derived from clues of Elite Responders,” says Clifford Stocks, CEO of OncoResponse, in a news release.

Aside from the grant, OncoResponse just hauled in $14 million from existing investors in a round led by RiverVest Venture Partners. Other participants in the series D round include Venture Partners, Canaan Partners, 3B Future Health Fund, Bering Capital, Takeda Ventures, and InterVest Capital Partners.

To date, OncoResponse has raised more than $180 million, according to market research company CB Insights.

A representative of OncoResponse couldn’t be reached for comment about the company’s relocation to Houston.

MD Anderson and Seattle-based Theraclone Sciences launched OncoResponse in 2015. Rice University was among the inaugural investors.

OncoResponse’s OR2805 immunotherapy product is being evaluated in a Phase 1 clinical trial. It’s the company’s leading immunotherapy candidate. OncoResponse is also working on OR502, an antibody being prepared for investigational and clinical studies.

“The modern treatment of cancer activates the body’s own immune system to attack cancer,” OncoResponse says in a summary posted on the website of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

“These treatments, called immunotherapy, may not be successful if the cancer can recruit bad-acting cells, such as tumor associated macrophages, or TAMs, that create barriers preventing immunotherapies from activating the body’s own defenses against the cancer. To find drugs that may help counteract these TAMs, OncoResponse looked to patients who had responded very well to immunotherapy to see if their bodies made factors to block TAMs and helped them fight their cancers.”

OncoResponse’s OR502 prevents TAMs from shutting down the body’s response to cancer, thus restoring tumor-killing immune activity, CPRIT explains.

In addition to OncoResponse, recent CPRIT grant recipients from the Houston area are:

  • Houston-based 7 Hills Pharma, $13,439,001. The company is working on immunotherapies for treatment of cancer and prevention of infectious diseases.
  • Houston-based Allterum Therapeutics, $11,721,150. The company is coming up with an antibody for treatment of patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. This type of cancer affects blood and bone marrow.
  • Houston-based Cell Therapy Manufacturing Center, $9.1 million. The center is a joint venture between National Resilience and MD Anderson Cancer Center that is developing cell therapy manufacturing technologies to support biotech partnerships.
  • Houston-based Pulmotect, $8,851,165. The company’s PUL-042 product is aimed at treating and preventing respiratory complications in cancer patients.
  • Cancer researcher Michael King, $6 million. The grant helped lure King to Rice from Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, where he’s been the chair of biomedical engineering. King’s lab at Vanderbilt has been testing therapies for metastatic breast cancer and prostate cancer.
  • Missouri City-based OmniNano Pharmaceuticals, $2,711,437. The pharmatech company is working on two drugs for treatment of solid tumors in patients with pancreatic cancer.

“Texas is unique because of CPRIT’s ability to invest in cutting-edge research when private capital is scarce. This is yet another way Texas is leading the nation in the fight against cancer,” Wayne Roberts, CEO of CPRIT, says in a news release.

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Innovative coastline project on Bolivar Peninsula receives federal funding

flood mitigation

The Galveston’s Coastal Barrier Project recently received federal funding to the tune of $500,000 to support construction on its flood mitigation plans for the area previously devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Known as Ike Dike, the proposed project includes implementing the Galveston Bay Storm Surge Barrier System, including eight Gulf and Bay defense projects. The Bolivar Roads Gate System, a two-mile-long closure structure situated between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, is included in the plans and would protect against storm surge volumes entering the bay.

The funding support comes from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and will go toward the preconstruction engineering and design phase of Ecosystem Restoration feature G-28, the first segment of the Bolivar Peninsula and West Bay Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Shoreline and Island Protection.

Coastal Barrier Project - Galveston Projects

The project also includes protection of critical fish and wildlife habitat against coastal storms and erosion.

“The Coastal Texas Project is one of the largest projects in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” says Col. Rhett A. Blackmon, USACE Galveston District commander, in a statement. “This project is important to the nation for many reasons. Not only will it reduce risk to the vulnerable populations along the Texas coast, but it will also protect vital ecosystems and economically critical infrastructure vital to the U.S. supply chain and the many global industries located here.”

Hurricane Ike resulted in over $30 billion in storm-related damages to the Texas coast, reports the Coastal Barrier Project, and created a debris line 15 feet tall and 40 miles long in Chambers County. The estimated economic disruption due to Hurricane Ike exceeded $150 billion, FEMA reported.

The project is estimated to take two years to complete after construction starts and will cost between $4 billion and $6 billion, reports Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Houston organization selects research on future foods in space health to receive $1M in funding

research and development

What would we eat if we were forced to decamp to another planet? The most immediate challenges faced by the food industry and astronauts exploring outside Earth are being addressed by The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine’s newest project.

Earlier this month, TRISH announced the initial selection for its Space Health Ingress Program (SHIP) solicitation. Working with California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Baylor-based program chose “Future Foods for Space: Mobilizing the Future Foods Community to Accelerate Advances in Space Health,” led by Dr. Denneal Jamison-McClung at the University of California, Davis.

“TRISH is bringing in new ideas and investigators to propel space health research,” says Catherine Domingo, TRISH operations lead and research administration associate at Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. “We have long believed that new researchers with fresh perspectives drive innovation and advance human space exploration and SHIP builds on TRISH’s existing efforts to recruit and support new investigators in the space health research field, potentially yielding and high-impact ideas to protect space explorers.”

The goal of the project is to develop sustainable food products and ingredients that could fuel future space travelers on long-term voyages, or even habitation beyond our home planet.

Jamison-McClung and her team’s goal is to enact food-related space health research and inspire the community thereof by mobilizing academic and food-industry researchers who have not previously engaged with the realm of space exploration. Besides growing and developing food products, the project will also address production, storage, and delivery of the nutrition created by the team.

To that end, Jamison-McClung and her recruits will receive $1 million over the course of two years. The goal of the SHIP solicitation is to work with first-time NASA investigators, bringing new minds to the forefront of the space health research world.

“As we look to enable safer space exploration and habitation for humans, it is clear that food and nutrition are foundational,” says Dr. Asha S. Collins, chair of the SHIP advisory board, in a press release. “We’re excited to see how accelerating innovation in food science for space health could also result in food-related innovations for people on Earth in remote areas and food deserts.”

Clean energy nonprofit CEO to step down, search for replacement to begin

moving on

Greentown Labs, which is co-located in the Boston and Houston areas, has announced its current CEO is stepping down after less than a year in the position.

The nonprofit's CEO and President Kevin Knobloch announced that he will be stepping down at the end of July 2024. Knobloch assumed his role last September, previously serving as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term.

“It has been an honor to lead this incredible team and organization, and a true privilege to get to know many of our brilliant startup founders," Knobloch says in the news release. “Greentown is a proven leader in supporting early-stage climatetech companies and I can’t wait to see all that it will accomplish in the coming years.”

The news of Knobloch's departure comes just over a month after the organization announced that it was eliminating 30 percent of its staff, which affected 12 roles in Boston and six in Houston.

According the Greentown, its board of directors is expected to launch a national search for its next CEO.

“On behalf of the entire Board of Directors, I want to thank Kevin for his efforts to strengthen the foundation of Greentown Labs and for charting the next chapter for the organization through a strategic refresh process,” says Dawn James, Greentown Labs Board Chair, in the release. “His thoughtful leadership will leave a lasting impact on the team and community for years to come.”

Knobloch reportedly shifted Greentown's sponsorship relationships with oil companies, sparking "friction within the organization," according to the Houston Chronicle, which also reported that Knobloch said he intends to return to his clean energy consulting firm.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.