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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New Houston venture studio emerges to target early-stage hardtech, energy transition startups

funding the future

The way Doug Lee looks at it, there are two areas within the energy transition attracting capital. With his new venture studio, he hopes to target an often overlooked area that's critical for driving forward net-zero goals.

Lee describes investment activity taking place in the digital and software world — early stage technology that's looking to make the industry smarter. But, on the other end of the spectrum, investment activity can be found on massive infrastructure projects.

While both areas need funding, Lee has started his new venture studio, Flathead Forge, to target early-stage hardtech technologies.

“We are really getting at the early stage companies that are trying to develop technologies at the intersection of legacy industries that we believe can become more sustainable and the energy transition — where we are going. It’s not an ‘if’ or ‘or’ — we believe these things intersect,” he tells EnergyCapital.

Specifically, Lee's expertise is within the water and industrial gas space. For around 15 years, he's made investments in this area, which he describes as crucial to the energy transition.

“Almost every energy transition technology that you can point to has some critical dependency on water or gas,” he says. “We believe that if we don’t solve for those things, the other projects won’t survive.”

Lee, and his brother, Dave, are evolving their family office to adopt a venture studio model. They also sold off Azoto Energy, a Canadian oilfield nitrogen cryogenic services business, in December.

“We ourselves are going through a transition like our energy is going through a transition,” he says. “We are transitioning into a single family office into a venture studio. By doing so, we want to focus all of our access and resources into this focus.”

At this point, Flathead Forge has seven portfolio companies and around 15 corporations they are working with to identify their needs and potential opportunities. Lee says he's gearing up to secure a $100 million fund.

Flathead also has 40 advisers and mentors, which Lee calls sherpas — a nod to the Flathead Valley region in Montana, which inspired the firm's name.

“We’re going to help you carry up, we’re going to tie ourselves to the same rope as you, and if you fall off the mountain, we’re falling off with you,” Lee says of his hands-on approach, which he says sets Flathead apart from other studios.

Another thing that's differentiating Flathead Forge from its competition — it's dedication to giving back.

“We’ve set aside a quarter of our carried interest for scholarships and grants,” Lee says.

The funds will go to scholarships for future engineers interested in the energy transition, as well as grants for researchers studying high-potential technologies.

“We’re putting our own money where our mouth is,” Lee says of his thesis for Flathead Forge.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.