Breakthrough research on metastatic breast cancer, a new way to turn toxic pollutants into valuable chemicals, and an evolved brain tumor chip are three cancer-fighting treatments coming out of Houston. Getty Inages

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

Photo via bcm.edu

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

Photo via uh.edu

A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

Photo via rice.edu

Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."

Dr. Colleen O'Connor has adapted immunotherapy treatments to be used in dogs. Courtesy of CAVU Biotherapies

Houston-based veterinary biotech startup modernizes cancer treatments for dogs

Paw-dern medicine

More than three years after its founding, Houston-based veterinary biotech company CAVU Biotherapies recently accomplished a significant milestone. In October, CAVU's specialized immunotherapy was administered to its first cancer patient: a black Labrador in Pennsylvania diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma.

Dr. Colleen O'Connor, CEO and founder of CAVU Biotherapies, established the company in July 2015 with a goal to help pets live longer post-cancer diagnoses. O'Connor, who earned a PhD in toxicology with a specialty in immunology, has more than a decade of hands-on experience researching cancer treatments.

"Our goal is to scale up and be able to increase our dogs' qualities of life with us," O'Connor said. "We want to keep families intact longer and we want to be able to modernize cancer care for our animals."

At CAVU, O'Connor dedicates her time to modernizing cancer care for dogs by developing an Autologous Prescription Product, otherwise known as adoptive T-cell therapy for dogs. The T-cell therapy is currently offered as a companion treatment to other canine cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, O'Connor said.

Historically, cancer research for animals has lagged behind that of humans, and cancer diagnoses have come late due to the language barrier, O'Connor said. Of the dogs who enter remission, a majority of them relapse within 10 months to one year, she said.

"A majority [of dogs] are diagnosed at stage four, and you have to become very aggressive," O'Connor said. "For B-cell lymphoma, with the current treatments right now and the current standard of [therapies], less than 20 percent make it to two years post-diagnosis."

Launching CAVU
O'Connor first began studying T-cell therapy for humans with cancer during her post-doctoral fellowship at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Her fellowship also partnered with Texas A&M University's Small Animal Hospital to develop a clinical trial studying the effects of adoptive T-cell therapies on dogs with B-cell lymphoma.

T-cell therapy is a cellular-based treatment in which a type of white blood cells — or the cells that fight off tumors and infections — are harvested from blood samples drawn from patients. The cells are then injected back into the patient through an IV to fight the cancerous cells, O'Connor said.

Unexpectedly, O'Connor's 19-year-old dog, Bubbles, was diagnosed with transitional cell carcinoma in 2008 and later dying from it in December 2009. Five years later, O'Connor's sister's 6-year-old dog, Daisy, also died from transitional cell carcinoma. O'Connor said she remembers feeling helpless as she watched the dogs succumb to the disease.

"I was giving them drugs and protocols that were from 1980 … and I was really upset that there wasn't much more we could do for our dogs — especially because I treat my dogs like family," O'Connor said.

That was when O'Connor realized she wanted to help prevent other people from feeling the pain of losing their furry family members. While T-cell therapy is not a new method of treating cancer in humans, O'Connor focused on modifying the serum to create a treatment plan appropriate for dogs.

However, launching a company focusing specifically on treating cancer in animals was not without its challenges; O'Connor said she had to learn how to start a business, make industry connections, and adopt an entrepreneurial mindset.

To help with this, CAVU also connected with various entrepreneurial accelerators, such as Houston Technology Center and Station Houston, which are associations that help place young businesses in front of investors.

CAVU later became a member of the Houston Angel Network — a group of private investors of high net worth individuals that as a group invest in startups. By presenting her business to HAN and its investors, CAVU was able to gain financial backing.

CAVU also recently joined the Capital Factory in early 2018, an Austin-based accelerator program for entrepreneurs in Texas. O'Connor said the program has helped her meet investors, mentors and other startups.

"The way I overcame a lot of this [the early challenges] is by education, listening and trying to navigate and talk with as many of the right people as I could that had experience," she said.

The future of CAVU
Since CAVU treated its first patient in October, CAVU's adoptive T-cell therapy treatment has been administered to six dogs, O'Connor said. CAVU's T-cell therapy is currently available at more than 12 veterinary clinics across the country, including clinics in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, and Missouri.

Additionally, four Houston-area clinics currently offer the T-cell therapy treatment: Garden Oaks Veterinary Clinic, Bayou City Veterinary Hospital, Memorial-610 Hospital for Animals, and Sugar Land Veterinary Specialists.

In order for a dog to be considered as a candidate — though it is ultimately up to the veterinarian on whether the T-cell therapy is right for specific dogs — the dogs must weigh more than 8 pounds, not be allergic to mouse or cow products and have no active autoimmune diseases.

The company also launched a new clinical trial with A&M University in October, looking at the effects of CAVU's T-cell therapy coupled with reduced chemotherapy periods for dogs, from roughly 19 to 26 weeks of chemotherapy to 6 to 8 weeks.

While CAVU's therapy is currently only available for dogs, O'Connor said her team plans to modify the T-cell therapy to be administered in other animals.

"We have a lot of cat owners ask us [about treatment] and we are going to do that for the next round in funding," she said. "We're going to look at how to translate this for cats and eventually horses."

O'Connor said that CAVU will launch more clinical trials with A&M University's Small Animal Hospital in the future, with CAVU aiming to make T-cell therapy treatments for cats and horses available in 2020.

Looking back, O'Connor said she has come a long way in her career path: from working with sea animals at the Newport Aquarium in Kentucky to studying human immunology and toxicology, but she's returned to studying animals.

"It's amazing how I pivoted, but at the end of the day I kind of came back to animals … and I came back full circle in a way I could have never expected," she said.

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11 startups pitch top Houston angel investors at biannual summit

money moves

The Houston Angel Network checked in with their investors and portfolio companies at their biannual Houston Angel Summit that gathered HAN members, local investors, and startup founders for a day full of educational opportunities, pitches, and fireside chats.

The event, which took place last week at Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, featured 11 startups – both new and more familiar to HAN members – pitching their growing companies in hopes of catching the interest of potential investors.

BioMedical Music Solutions

Austin-based BioMedical Music Solutions has a SaaS platform that uses artificial intelligence and music to accelerate rehabilitation at a lower cost. Founder Hope Young explained her years-proven therapy can work its magic in one-third of the time and one-tenth of the cost of traditional physical therapy sessions.

Optelos

Houston-based Optelos has a patented SaaS solution that can transform physical asset images, videos, and documents into what's known as a "Digital Inspection Twin" that can enabling knowledge workers utilizing our unified data management, reality modeling, and in-process artificial intelligence solution, to digitally visualize, analyze and manage their entire asset base.

Pocket Naloxone

Maryland-based Pocket Naloxone is attempting to solve the opioid crisis. The company has a portfolio of over-the-counter drug overdose reversal agents, including a naloxone OTC product.

AI Driller

Houston-based AI Driller is using mathematic algorithms to apply automation on rigs for drilling. The startup can also offer its clients real-time data and cuts out the opportunity for human error.

Cavu Biotherapies

Houston pet immunotherapy company, Cavu Biotherapies, has seen a tremendous amount of growth and is now a treatment partner at 43 clinic providers in 18 states and Canada. Founder Colleen O'Connor says she's seen a near 600 percent growth in revenue over the past year and treated 38 dog cancer patients in that timeframe.

CorInnova

Another Houston company, CorInnova, has created a device from a soft, flexible material that can be easily inserted through a 1-inch incision, and then be used for increase blood pumping in the heart by 50 percent.

Hive Genie

Houston-based Hive Genie is using technology to help beekeepers optimize their pollination operations and monitor hive operations remotely. Gone are the days, Hive Genie hopes, that beekeepers need to suit up to track and maintain their colonies physically.

Siera AI

Austin-based Siera AI is using its AI-enabled cloud IoT platform for logistics solutions and safety improvements in warehouse settings. A goal of the company's, according to its website, is to free humans from these types of dull, dangerous, dirty tasks.

Skycom

The sky's not even the limit for Austin-based Skycom and its airship technology that supplies low-cost cell towers in orbit. The technology can bring down the cost of mobile service providers and allow for growth into new markets.

Tevido

Another Austin company, Tevido uses a pigment cell graft process to use patients' own skin cells to restore normal skin color for patients with vitiligo and pale scars.

Tot Squad

Los Angeles-based Tot Squad emerged as a service-focused company for baby-related tasks and now has emerged as a digital marketplace connecting service providers online to parents and to-be parents for needs like stroller cleaning or carseat installation.


Here's what lean startup tips founders can learn from this Houston restaurateur and Rice University MBA

Houston voices

It was one of those toasty, 95-degree evenings in late September in Houston, and we were clinking our craft cocktails to a full house at ChòpnBlọk's latest pop up concept – the fifth restaurant takeover in his series. I don't know what was hotter… outside, the vibe, or the spice in the ata rodo (scotch bonnet) maple syrup our plantain pancakes were lathered in. But one thing is for sure, as he prepares to open a brick and mortar location in 2020, Ope Amosu, a Rice University MBA graduate and the founder of ChòpnBlọk, is proving himself to be a mean, lean (startup) machine.

After getting his MBA from Rice Business in 2014, he began traveling extensively for work and was frustrated with his inability to easily access authentic West African cuisine in Houston and beyond. He was able to conveniently experience other cultures through successful restaurant concepts, but not his own. So in order to see if he had what it take to bring high quality, convenient West African inspired cuisine to Texas, he did what every MBA graduate dreams of: he rolled up his sleeves and secured a part-time job working the line at Chipotle.

Chipotle taught Ope the art of restaurant operations, and he made money learning it. Pulling together his lessons learned, he began building out his business plan. He identified a large West African population in Houston that was being under-served and was confident in his ability to address this market gap with his fast-casual concept. From his time working with various engineering groups, he knew that he needed to test his idea early so he could fail early and fail fast without breaking the bank.

This led to the inception of ChòpnBlọk. Ope knew acquiring a food truck would be too timely and too expensive, so he went a more creative, cost–effective route. He began hosting private dinners where his guests experienced a multi-course dining program rich with West African flavor.

Those full and happy guests unknowingly were participating in a fun focus group. He leveraged these dinners to collect data from each diner. What did they recommend he charge per meal? Did they like what they were eating? What was their current dining out behaviors? After hosting over ten smaller private dinners, he had collected valuable pieces of information that would inform his business plan including:

  1. He had market data from over 200 diners.
  2. He proved that there was an appetite for West African cuisine in Houston. His fears that the common stigmas about African culture would hinder his growth seemed unfounded.
  3. He quickly optimized operational efficiency in feeding his guests.

Having validated customer demand, honed in on customer preferences, and demonstrated that the market opportunity he believed existed could be captured, all without taking on investors, it was time to take the next step. ChòpnBlọk began efforts to scale, finding a way to re-engage customers who were hungry for more.

This is how the pop-up experiences came to life. With his restaurant takeovers, Ope is able to serve well over 100 paying customers per dinner and gain all the operational know-how that goes along with such an affair. In a risk-free environment, he gets to test various creative concepts and fine-tune logistics…all with almost zero overhead and very minimal risk.

You can probably guess what is next. It should come as no surprise that ChòpnBlọk has been approached by funders and developers to launch a brick and mortar location for 2020. With hundreds of paying customers, a net promoter score staying high at 9/10, and an entrepreneur's tenacity like his, I have a feeling ChòpnBlọk will be coming for Chipotle in just a matter of time.

Want to learn more? Visit their website and follow them on Instagram.

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Caitlin Bolanos is the senior associate director at the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

This article originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

Capital Factory founder plans to double portfolio companies in Houston this year

Q&A

A statewide accelerator program has doubled down on Houston, and it's just the beginning.

Austin-based Capital Factory, which also has a presence in Dallas, recently merged with Station Houston in an effort to expand their mentor network and grow its startup portfolio with the addition of Houston companies.

As of today, Capital Factory has 40 startups from Houston in its portfolio, says Josh Baer, founder and CEO of Capital Factory, and Baer says he expects to add an additional 40 in 2020. The Station merger will help spur that growth and also play into Capital Factory's greater Texas Manifesto mission to advance innovation statewide.

"This is not just about adding one more city," Baer says. "It's really about how there's a lot of unique things that Houston brings that are going to make the whole picture a lot stronger."

Baer sat down with InnovationMap to discuss the details of the merger, how Capital Factory will be tuned into The Ion, and how Houston startups can tap into Capital Factory — both locally and at this year's SXSW.

InnovationMap: Capital Factory has been active in Houston for a few years and announced a partnership with The Cannon last year. How has that activation been going?

Josh Baer: We've been in Houston for quite a while now. We started off with our Texas Manifesto almost three years ago and the first thing we did was a listening tour of all the different cities, and we spent a bunch of time in Houston.

Part of the growth we've seen in part is from our partnership with The Cannon as they've opened. They've been a great partner allowing us to reach all of Houston because Houston is really big. It's not like Austin where you can primarily service from one place. We're not builders, that's not our role. We want to be wherever everybody else is doing great things. And that's The Cannon, The Ion, and the Texas Medical Center and all the other places too. There's lots of room for different flavors and focuses and groups, and we need to be at all those places.

IM: What's Capital Factory's presence in Houston and how do you see it growing?

JB: Last year, we hired our first two employees in Houston — that was Kendrick and Brittany, our mentor coordinator and venture associate — so that we could build our mentor network and connect them into the rest of Texas and source the best companies and connect them to the rest of Texas. Last year with those two employees, we brought in 14 Houston companies into our accelerator.

In total right now, we have 40 companies ever that have joined our accelerator from Houston, which is still a pretty significant number. This year, we expect more than 40 companies to join the accelerator from Houston.

IM: How will Capital Factory be involved in The Ion?

JB: Well we are so happy that we have exactly the role we would want to have at The Ion. And that is having some prime space right in the middle of it, and we're located not in the coworking space but in the event space because that's really, we want to be — we want to be where everyone is meeting and activating.

One of the things that we'll focus on is building out the mentor network at The Ion and connecting it into the rest of our mentor network. We're not going to be the only accelerator there. There's going to be a bunch of accelerators there. There's gonna be a bunch of mentor networks. And we're excited to partner with all of those and many more probably bring great people into our networks. I'm pretty confident we'll be the biggest mentor network there and we'll be the default one. We'll be the main one that everybody's part of, and particularly because it connects into everything else. But we'll do that in a really collaborative way.

IM: You kind of dove headfirst into the Dallas innovation ecosystem with a real estate play. Why did making these partnerships make more sense for Houston?

JB: Well, Capital Factory isn't backed by a big university or a billionaire, or a pension fund or something. It's really backed by entrepreneurs. And so while we're fortunate that we do have capital to invest in these startups, our value is not really like the capital like that builds buildings. It takes a lot of money and a lot of capital and that comes from universities and different types of investors and from communities right from the city and others that are part of that.

And so in Dallas, when we looked at that market, there was a real need — nobody was building a place like this, so we had to. We needed a center of gravity. Dallas is big too — other people will build more and we're going to need to be at those places too, just like in Houston.

But in Houston, not only did we are Texas Medical Center, and then we already had The Canon and there's going to be The Ion, which are hundreds of thousands of square feet of prime real estate that's going to be amazing. We don't want to recreate that or compete with that. We want to be part of that.

So, if somebody else is already putting up tens or a hundreds of millions of dollars to build the building, I don't need to do that. I want to be part of that. My value is not capital. It's bringing the people into the building. It's activating the building and bringing programming into it, and that's where Capital Factory really adds the most value.

IM: How exactly did the merger with Station Houston come about?

JB: You know, it goes all the way back to the very beginning. I'm pretty sure that I was one of the first people that the founders of Station talked to when they were getting started when Emily and Blair and others were working on it. You know, Capital Factory was the place they came to look at. And, I was friends with all of them, and we were very open book about it, and said, "Hey, you know, here's how we work. We should see how we can work together." Because of that, we've always had a good relationship — Station was the first place that we ever went on a bus trip to Houston. We've had lots of overlap between our mentor networks and startups that we work with and others.

And Station has gone through some different changes over the years — leadership and their model evolved from one profit to nonprofit and onward. And through those changes, we just kept moving closer and closer together. It became really clear, especially with the launch of The Ion, that it was really the perfect opportunity for us to align ourselves even more closely and really connected fully into the rest of what's happening in the rest of the state.

IM: I’ve spoken to Gabriella Rowe, former CEO of Station, about it and she really sees it as a return to Station’s roots as an organization. How do you see the merger for Capital Factory?

JB: Well for us, you know, I really like the analogy of a stool. Everybody knows that to have a good foundation, a stool needs to have three legs. And, our mission in connecting Texas together through our Texas Manifesto. [Austin and Dallas were] working and working well, but it still wasn't a strong foundation. Ramping this up across Dallas and Houston, it completes the foundation and gives it a really strong footing and a really powerful footing to make it a Texas wide play.

We don't see this as a cookie cutter kind of thing. Each city is different. Each city has different needs and brings different things [to the table]. And we see that for sure from Houston. The type of entrepreneurs and companies that we've worked with are different. They're working on big, messy problems — robots and dangerous things. And that is exciting and attracts other partners — the big companies and the army and others that want tap into that too. And so, this is not just about adding one more city. It's really about how there's a lot of unique things that Houston brings that that's going to make the whole picture a lot stronger.

IM: What’s the status of the merger at this point?

JB: The paperwork's done, and we're taking a very intentionally slow process with [the execution of the merger]. We told everybody, "you shouldn't expect to see a lot to change fast." We want to be careful and thoughtful. So, we're going to listen a lot, and we're going to make changes slowly. And our goal is that for all the Station members, this is just a value add. They get everything they had before, plus now they get more. Now they get access to the Capital Factory network now, and they get access over time to more at the ion.

[But bigger picture,] it's not done at all. We barely started. We're still really listening and learning, so I don't feel like much has happened yet. The beginning part is, right now, every station Houston member has access to the rest of the Capital Factory network — both physically and virtually. They can go to Austin or Dallas. They can go to The Cannon. And more importantly than that, they can use our online network of union.vc, which is a website where they can log in, create a profile, and they can see all the other startups and mentors across the state and they can be seen by them. And that's what we can do to help connect them all together.

IM: Capital Factory kept Station’s remaining staff, right? Will Capital Factory be hiring more staff in Houston? 

JB: Right, we now have five Houston employees, three of them used to be Station's. We do expect to hire, but we don't have any specific roles to announce, but we have over a dozen people on the team in Dallas now two years into it.

IM: How can Houston startups make the most of SXSW this year?

JB: Honestly, our goal is to be the easy button. The first thing is come to Capital Factory. Capital Factory is an official South by Southwest house. This year, it's all official programming. And of course, the type of programming that you're going to see is focused on startups and government and defense.

We'll have Fast Company, Deloitte, Booz Allen, the army, and the air force — all kinds of other people there. And so that's an easy place to plug in. And for entrepreneurs who are part of our network, they don't have to have South badge to do that. They can be part of what's going on at Capital Factory as members.

IM: For startups wanting to get involved with Capital Factory, what's step one?

JB: The first step is to come to The Canon or Station and meet us possible. And the person that first person they want to meet is Brittany Barreto, who's our mentor associate. That's her job is to scout startups and meet them and help kind of bring them into the funnel.