Early-stage cell therapy startup March Biosciences has partnered with CTMC. Photo via march.bio

When it came time to name their cell therapy startup, Houston life science innovators simply had to look to their calendar.

“I would argue that March is the best month in Houston,” Sarah Hein tells InnovationMap. “We started talking about putting this company together during COVID, so we were outside a lot. And we actually got together in March.”

That’s why the CEO and her co-founders Max Mamonkin and Malcolm Brenner decided to name their company March Biosciences.

It's a fresh, unstuffy name for a startup that has an innovative take on cancer immunotherapy. Their lead asset is an advanced cellular therapy known as MB-105, an autologous CD5 CAR T cell therapy. For patients with T-cell lymphoma and leukemia who have failed all currently available lines of therapy, the prognosis is understandably extremely poor. But in a phase one study, MB-105 has been proven to safely treat those patients. The phase two study is expected to begin in the first half of 2024.

Hein met Mamonkin at the TMC Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics (ACT), at which the alumna of Resonant Therapeutics and Courier Therapeutics was an entrepreneur in residence.

“It's a perfect example of the opportunities here in Houston where you can go from bench to bedside, essentially, in the same institution. And Baylor has been particularly good at that because of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy,” says Hein.

The serial entrepreneur first came to Houston as a PhD student in molecular and cellular biology at Baylor College of Medicine, but during her studies she became excited by the startup ecosystem in her new hometown. After earning her degree, she became a venture fellow at the Mercury Fund. Her experience in both science and business made her an ideal candidate to take March Biosciences to the next level.

In September, the company announced that it formed a strategic alliance with CTMC (Cell Therapy Manufacturing Center), a joint venture between MD Anderson Cancer Center and National Resilience.

“Our unique risk-sharing model allows us to collaborate with organizations like March Biosciences to accelerate the development and manufacture of innovative cell therapies, like MB-105, and bring them into the clinic with a consistent and scalable manufacturing process,” said CTMC’s CEO, Jason Bock in a press release.

The partnership “has allowed us to move really quickly,” Hein says.

That’s because what CTMC does uniquely well is take early stage companies like March Biosciences and advance them to a state that’s ready for manufacturing in a short time, around 18 months, says Hein.

According to Hein, March Biosciences’ success is a testament to Houston and its world-class medical center.

“It’s a great example of the opportunities you see here in Houston, where we have a technology that was developed by brilliant scientists here in Houston and we can pull together the resources that we need to take it to the next level,” Hein says. "Working with partners here in Houston, we have all the pieces and the community rises to the occasion to support you.”

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Jason Bock of CTMC, Barbara Burger, and Mario Amaro of Ease. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from cell therapy to energy transition — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Jason Bock, founder and CEO of CTMC

Jason Bock, founder and CEO of the Cell Therapy Manufacturing Center, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to explain the complicated — yet necessary — process of scaling cell therapies. Photo courtesy

Last year, a project out of MD Anderson spun out to create a new joint venture, CTMC — Cell Therapy Manufacturing Center, with National Resilience, a company that was founded to help advance life-saving therapeutics. The JV is based in the Texas Medical Center and led by CEO Jason Bock, who says the entity's location is critical.

"Houston has a chance to play a role in all aspects of cell therapy," he says, from discovery to the clinical side. "Some really interesting cell therapies that are in development were discovered here in Houston."

Bock shares more on how the impact CTMC is making on cell therapy advancement on the podcast. Read more.

Barbara J. Burger, startup adviser and mentor 

Energy innovation expert, Barbara Burger, shares how she sees the future of energy playing out as a dance between mice — the startups — and elephants — the incumbent corporations. Photo courtesy

The way Barbara Burger sees it, the energy transition depends on a dance between startups, or the mice, and corporates, aka the elephants. In a guest column for InnovationMap, she explains what questions each side needs to address.

"There are lots of questions here and the why is often an iterative journey for both sides," she explains. "It is as much mindset, influence, strategy, champions, and risk tolerance at individual levels as it about technology and economics." Read more.

Mario Amaro, CEO and founder of Ease

Mario Amaro, founder of Ease, was selected for one of Amazon's accelerator programs. Photo courtesy of Amazon

Amazon's AWS Impact Accelerator Latino Founders Cohort named the 20 startups joining its accelerator that will connect Latinx founders to its network of mentors, provide programming, and even dole out funding.

Houston-based Ease, founded by Mario Amaro in 2018, the health care fintech platform allows for medical professionals to start, grow, and manage their private practices with bookkeeping tools and other software infrastructure. So far, the company has worked with more than 300 practices. Read more.

Jason Bock, founder and CEO of the Cell Therapy Manufacturing Center, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to explain the complicated — yet necessary — process of scaling cell therapies. Photo courtesy

Houston innovator aims to scale cancer-curing cell therapies

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 185

It's almost unreal what can be done with therapeutics today, especially in the specialty of cell therapy.

"It feels like science fiction," says Jason Bock, founder and CEO of the Cell Therapy Manufacturing Center, or CTMC, a joint venture between National Resilience and MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Cell therapy is essentially personalized medicine, he explains. The process includes taking out a patient’s own immune cells, identifying specifically the T-cells, and engineer them to have them target cancer before expanding them and reintroducing them to the patient.

“The supply chain begins with the patient,” Bock explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “If the patient is going to be an integral part of the supply chain, one way to simplify your supply chain is to locate your manufacturing very close to where your patients are.”

That's where CTMC, located in the heart of the Texas Medical Center, comes in. Bock moved to Houston from the East Coast four years to stand up the program at MD Anderson. The founding thesis was to work with faculty members who have interesting ideas for biologics or cell therapies, help them industrialize them, and then bring them into the MD Anderson clinic to evaluate in patients.

Last year, the entity spun out into a joint venture structure with National Resilience, a company that was founded amid the pandemic to build resilience in the nation for complex biologics manufacturing — like vaccines, for instance — in order to expedite the process of getting these treatments to patients.

With access to patients established, how do you address scalability of this treatment in a field that's so customized?

While it might sound like a challenge to scale personalized medicine — it's a worthwhile challenge. Bock says that even though cell therapy is in its early stages still — the first treatment was approved by the FDA just five years ago — early studies have shown patients, who essentially have no other treatment options, can see life-saving results in as little as one treatment.

"We see in a large group of patients — 30 to 50 percent of patients — are cured with one dose," he says on the show.

CTMC has a 60,000-square-foot space two blocks away from MD Anderson. This critical lab space with 14 clean rooms was made available after its previous biotech tenant moved out. The setup can support up to 140 people, and the organization has grown to 80 people over the past few years.

Bock says CTMC is an engine for cell therapy research — one that can take a therapeutic from research to the clinic in about one to two years. Every year, he says CTMC can roll three to five therapeutics into the clinic phase.

And, Houston's an ideal place to do that.

"Houston has a chance to play a role in all aspects of cell therapy," he says, from discovery to the clinical side. "Some really interesting cell therapies that are in development were discovered here in Houston."

Bock shares more on how the impact CTMC is making on cell therapy advancement on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

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 podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.