Atul Varadhachary of Fannin joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Commercializing a life science innovation that has the potential to enhance or even save the lives of millions of patients is a marathon, not a sprint. That's how Atul Varadhachary thinks of it, and he's leading an organization that's actively running that race for several different early-stage innovations.

For over a decade, Fannin has worked diligently to develop promising life science innovations — that start as just an idea or research subject — by garnering grant funding and using its team of expert product developers to build out the technology or treatment. The model is different from what you'd see at an accelerator or incubator, and it also varies from the path taken by an academic or research institution.

The life science innovation timeline is very different from a software startup's, which can get to an early prototype in less than a year.

"In biotech, to get to that minimally viable product, it can take a decade and tens of millions of dollars," Varadhachary, managing director at Fannin, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.



Fannin addresses what Varadhachary calls a twin bottleneck in Houston's life science innovation ecosystem. Not only does Houston not attract the funding biotech startups need desperately to grow their companies, but hiring is a major issue as the city isn't home to an established labor pool of experienced product developers within the industry.

"The challenge is that product development is more complex — it requires innovation, but that's not sufficient. When you ask people why we lag in the product development in the life sciences — although we are home to the largest medical center in the country, we don't even make list of top 10 biotech clusters — the usual answer is that we don't have enough biotech investors," Varadhachary says.

"But that puts the cart before the horse," he continues. "Investors invest in people not just ideas. Although we have an amazing pool of researchers and clinicians, we lack experienced product developers."

In more ways than one, Fannin is addressing this problem. For all of its several ongoing programs, Fannin acts as the leadership team for the technologies. Its core employees — there are about 20 currently — work on all of the companies, which are developing a range life science innovations, from Brevitest, a point-of-use immunoassay platform, to Procyrion, an intra-aortic pump for congestive heart failure patients.

Fannin's programs also range in stage, which Varadhachary outlines on the show to be three different phases. The earliest stage programs will have Fannin's team working directly on early testing, product development, and grant writing, while the later stage programs will have built out a dedicated team and raise venture investment.

Another way Fannin is addressing Houston's lack of life science product developers is through its Fannin Talent Development Program, which has given around 350 individuals an opportunity to gain critical product development experience.

With 10 years under its belt, Fannin — as well as the greater Houston life science innovation ecosystem — is at a point where it can soon produce exits needed to firm up Houston as a life science leader.

"Clearly, we've got the base elements required to be a successful ecosystem, and they continue to grow," Varadhachary says of Houston. "Typically you need one or two really big success stories — especially if those success stories result in a company being sold, leaving behind experienced product developers with money in their pockets — that's often what will supercharge the next cycle of development. I'm hoping that will happen in Houston in the next five years, decade, or so."

Money moves, big deals, and more lead this roundup of innovation news. Pexels

Houston biomedical startup granted $1.5M, Chevron taps into Plug and Play, and more innovation news

Short stories

Hitting headlines this month are innovation news stories from battling the opioid crisis and funding to TMCx companies and Houston as a whole earning recognition.

In this innovation news roundup, two Houston startups pocket some cash, Chevron links up with Plug and Play, and more.

BreviTest receives grant to combat opioid crisis

BreviTest Technologies

Houston-based BreviTest can rapidly and accurately test for opioid use. Photo via brevitest.com

National Institute on Drug Abuseof the National Institutes of Health — through a Small Business Innovation Research Phase II grant — has granted $1.5 million to Houston-based BreviTest Technologies to take its opioid testing technology to the next level. With 47,600 opioid overdose deaths reported in 2017 in the United States, the startup's analyzer has a lot of potential to aid in the crisis.

"Because of the delay in receiving laboratory results, many physicians use urine drug testing sparingly. The BreviTest analyzer will allow any doctor to measure opioid urine levels in-office, which will help them identify individuals who are misusing the drugs," says BreviTest's Michael J. Heffernan, Ph.D., principal investigator on the project, in a news release.

BreviTest is a Fannin Innovation Studio company. The early-stage biomedical commercialization firm that's based in Houston is proud to see the startup's success and the difference the technology is making.

"Our BreviTest team is excited to receive this support from NIDA to advance our point-of-care diagnostics technology into the clinic," said Fannin executive chairman, Leo Linbeck III, in the release. "Putting a convenient, accurate opioid test in the hands of physicians will be an important step in combating the opioid overdose epidemic facing our country."

Houston's Plug and Play operation names Chevron as founding partner

Chevron has linked up with Plug and Play in Houston. Courtesy of CTV

Plug and Play Tech Center, which just announced the participating companies in its inaugural energy and sustainability cohort in Houston, has named Chevron as a founding partner.

"We are incredibly excited to announce Chevron as a Founding Partner of Plug and Play in Houston," saysWade Bitaraf, founder of Plug and Play's Energy & Sustainability program, in a news release. "Their commitment to invest in digital transformation and reduce the environmental impact of the industry is directly aligned with our Energy & Sustainability program in Houston, Silicon Valley, and around the world."

Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, the company's venture and innovation arm, is responsible for identifying pathways to innovation for the company.

"Chevron is a proud supporter of the Houston innovation community, and our support of Plug and Play's Energy & Sustainability platform demonstrates our commitment to growing the Houston innovation ecosystem," Burger says in the release. "Innovation will play a critical role in the future of energy, and our partnership with Plug and Play reinforces our commitment to invest in breakthrough technologies to enable the ongoing energy transition."

Houston recognized as a top 10 city for female founder success

According to Inc. 5000, Houston's great for female founders. Getty Images

Texas cities are great for fostering female founder success, according to a new ranking from Inc. 5000. Houston ranked at No. 10 of the top 10 list that factored in the women-led businesses among the magazine's 5,000 fastest-growing private U.S. companies.

"The Houston metropolitan area is home to 15 women-owned Inc. 5000 companies, including online marketing startup Decode Digital Marketing (No. 973) and health care staffing firm Restore Rehab Services (No. 2,645)," reads the ranking. "Together the 15 firms grew their collective revenue 142 percent between 2015 and 2018."

Dallas and Austin both appeared on the ranking, at No. 4 and No. 6, respectively.

Alice closes series A of funding

Alice founders, Elizabeth Gore (left) and Carolyn Rodz, closed their series A of funding. Getty Images

Though the company did not disclose an amount raised, Alice, an artificial intelligence-powered platform for business advice, closed a series A funding round led by SVB Financial Group, the parent company to Silicon Valley Bank.

Per a news release, the company will use the funding to "build its predictive technology, using data analytics to guide each entrepreneur through every stage of their business."

Alice, which has operations in Houston and San Francisco, reached a deal with Austin-based Bumble for funding earlier this year.

TMCx companies win big

TMCx

Three TMCx alumni companies earned some recognition at the UCSF Digital Health Awards last month. Courtesy of TMCx

Three health tech companies coming out of the Texas Medical Center's accelerator program have won big at the UCSF Digital Health Awards last month.

  • Sana Health, member of TMCx07 in 2018, won in the best behavioral health digital therapeutic category for its light-based neuromodulation pain treatment technology.
  • Meru Health, member of TMCx08 in 2019, won in the best mental health digital health therapeutic category for its mental health platform.
  • Luma Health, member of TMCx08 in 2019, won in the best EHR-integrated platform for patient engagement category for its patient communication technology.

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Houston cardiac health startup raises $43 million series B to grow AI-backed platform

money moves

A Houston-based tech company that has a product line of software solutions for cardiac health has raised funding.

Octagos Health, the parent company of Atlas AI — a software platform for cardiac devices like pacemakers, defibrillators, ambulatory monitors and consumer wearables — has announced a $43 million series B raise that will bring their technology to many more hearts.

Morgan Stanley Investment Capital led the investment, which also included funds from Mucker Capital and other continuing strategic investors. The goal of the raise is to supply funds to accelerate Atlas AI’s growth across the United States and to expand into other areas of care, including ambulatory monitors, consumer wearables, and sleep.

"This investment will enable us to accelerate enhancements to our platform, in addition to scaling our commercial team and operations. We are currently the only company that helps cardiology practices migrate their historical data from legacy software providers and fully integrates with any EHR (exertion heart rate) system. We do this while enabling customized reporting supported by patient and practice decision-support analytics," says Eric Olsen, COO of Octagos Health, in a press release.

Octagos Health was founded by a team of healthcare pros including CEO Shanti Bansal, a cardiologist and founder of Houston Heart Rhythm, an atrial fibrillation center. The goal was to find a new way to deal with the massive amount of data that clinicians encounter each day in a way that combines software and the work of human doctors.

According to the Octagos Health website, “Our solution allows clinicians to focus on other ways of delivering meaningful healthcare and more efficiently manage their remotely monitored patients.”

It works thanks to customizable reporting features that allow patients’ healthcare teams to get help while monitoring them, but to do it precisely as they would if they were crunching numbers themselves.

"We are excited to partner with Octagos Health and support their vision of transforming cardiac care," says Melissa Daniels, managing director of Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital. "Octagos Health has demonstrated exceptional growth and innovation in a critical area of healthcare. We believe their platform and vertically integrated software and services significantly improve patient care and streamline cardiac monitoring processes for healthcare providers."

Will Hsu, co-founder and partner of Mucker Capital, agrees. “Octagos Health is poised for scale – industry leading gross margins, a very sticky product that doctors and clinical staff love, and a market ready for disruption with artificial intelligence. This is the new wave for diagnostic care,” he says. And with this raise, it will be available to even more clinicians and patients across the country.

Houston biotech company expands leadership as it commercializes sustainable products

joining the team

Houston-based biotech company Cemvita recently tapped two executives to help commercialize its sustainable fuel made from carbon waste.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin came aboard as vice president of industrial biotechnology, and Phil Garcia was promoted to vice president of commercialization.

Parachin most recently oversaw several projects at Boston-based biotech company Ginkjo Bioworks. She previously co-founded Brazilian biotech startup Integra Bioprocessos.

Parachin will lead the Cemvita team that’s developing technology for production of bio-manufactured oil.

“It’s a fantastic moment, as we’re poised to take our prototyping to the next level, and all under the innovative direction of our co-founder Tara Karimi,” Parachin says in a news release. “We will be bringing something truly remarkable to market and ensuring it’s cost-effective.”

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita, says the hiring of Parachin represents “the natural next step” toward commercializing the startup’s carbon-to-oil process.

“Her background prepared her to bring the best out of the scientists at the inflection point of commercialization — really bringing things to life,” says Moji Karimi, Tara’s brother.

Parachin joins Garcia on Cemvita’s executive team.

Before being promoted to vice president of commercialization, Garcia was the startup’s commercial director and business development manager. He has a background in engineering and business development.

Founded in 2017, Cemvita recently announced a breakthrough that enables production of large quantities of oil derived from carbon waste.

In 2023, United Airlines agreed to buy up to one billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel from Cemvita’s first full-scale plant over the course of 20 years.

Cemvita’s investors include the UAV Sustainable Flight Fund, an investment arm of Chicago-based United; Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based energy company Occidental Petroleum; and Japanese equipment and machinery manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a logistics startup founder, a marketing expert, and a solar energy innovator.

Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal

Houston logistics SaaS innovator is making waves with its expanded maritime shipping platform. Photo courtesy of Voyager

For several years now, Matthew Costello has been navigating the maritime shipping industry looking for problems to solve for customers with his company, Voyager Portal.

Initially, that meant designing a software platform to enhance communications and organization of the many massive and intricate global shipments happening every day. Founded in 2018 by Costello and COO Bret Smart, Voyager Portal became a integral tool for the industry that helps users manage the full lifecycle of their voyages — from planning to delivery.

"The software landscape has changed tremendously in the maritime space. Back in 2018, we were one of a small handful of technology startups in this space," Costello, who serves as CEO of Voyager, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Now that's changed. ... There's really a huge wave of innovation happening in maritime right now." Read more.

Arielle Rogg, principal and founder of Rogg Enterprises

Arielle Rogg writes in a guest column for InnovationMap about AI in the workforce. Photo via LinkedIn

Arielle Rogg isn't worried about artificial intelligence coming for her job. In fact, she has three reasons why, and she outlines them in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"The advent of AI pushes us humans to acquire new skills and hone our existing abilities so we can work alongside these evolving technologies in a collaborative fashion. AI augments human capabilities rather than replacing us. I believe it will help our society embrace lifelong learning, creating new industries and jobs that have never existed before," she writes in the piece. Read more.

Nathan Childress, founder of Solar Slice

Solar Slice Founder Nathan Childress says his new venture offers a fulfilling way to encourage and promote solar energy and a greener planet. Photo via LinkedIn

Nuclear engineer and entrepreneur Nathan Childress wants consumers to capture their own ray of sunlight to brighten the prospect of making clean energy a bigger part of the power grid. That's why he founded Solar Slice. The new venture offers a fulfilling way to encourage and promote solar energy and a greener planet.

Although trained in nuclear power plant design, solar power drew his interest as a cheaper and more accessible alternative, and Childress tells InnovationMap that he thinks that the transition to cleaner energy, in Texas especially, needs to step up.

Recent studies show that 80 to 90 percent of the money invested into fighting climate change “aren’t going to things that people actually consider helpful,” Childress says, adding that “they’re more just projects that sound good, that are not actually taking any action." Read more.