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.

The projects are among 16 other early-stage research projects at U.S. colleges and universities to receive a total of $17.4 million from the DOE's Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

3 UH projects land $17.4M in DOE funding for early-stage research

follow the money

Three projects from the University of Houston have been awarded funds from the U.S. Department of Energy for research on decarbonization and emissions.

The projects are among 16 other early-stage research projects at U.S. colleges and universities to receive a total of $17.4 million from the DOE's Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM).

“These three projects show the relevance and quality of the research at UH and our commitment to making a meaningful impact by addressing society’s needs and challenges by doing critical work that impacts the real world,” Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president for energy and innovation at UH, says in a statement. “The success of these project could attract investment, create jobs, produce clean energy, save costs, reduce carbon emissions, and benefit not only the greater Houston area, but the Gulf Coast and beyond.”

The projects were selected under FECM’s University Training and Research program, which aims to support "research and development opportunities for traditionally underrepresented communities and tap into the innovative and diverse thinking of student researchers," according to an announcement from the DOE.

Here are the projects from UH and their funding amounts:

A Comprehensive Roadmap for Repurposing Offshore Infrastructure for Clean Energy Projects in the Gulf of Mexico, $749,992 — Led by Ram Seetharam, UH Energy program officer, this project looks at ways to prolong the life of platforms, wells and pipelines in the Gulf Coast and will create a plan "covering technical, social, and regulatory aspects, as well as available resources," according to UH.

Houston Hydrogen Transportation Pilot, $750,000— Led by Christine Ehlig-Economides, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen, and managed by Joe Powell, this project will demonstrate the potential for a hydrogen refueling pilot in Houston. The first phase will create a system to optimize hydrogen and the second will create a workforce training network. The project is in collaboration with Prairie View A&M University.

Synergizing Minority-Serving Institution Partnerships for Carbon-Negative Geologic Hydrogen Production, $1.5 million — This project is in collaboration with Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and Texas Tech. The project will create a visiting scholars program for students from UH and TTU, who will spend one month per year at Stanford for three years. While in the program, students will focus on creating carbon-negative hydrogen from rocks beneath the Earth's surface. Kyung Jae Lee, associate professor in the Department of Petroleum Engineering at UH, is working alongside colleagues at TTU and Stanford on this project.

Other projects in the group come from the University of Texas at El Paso, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Tennessee State University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Duke University and more.

Last year the DOE also awarded $2 million to Harris and Montgomery counties for projects that improve energy efficiency and infrastructure in the region. Click here to read about those projects.

The DOE also granted more than $10 million in funding to four carbon capture projects with ties to Houston last summer.
Greentown Houston has received funding from the EDA. Photo via GreentownLabs.com

Houston energy tech startup incubator secures federal support to accelerate tech entrepreneurship

seeing green

Sixty organizations across the country have received a grant from the United States Department of Commerce — and one recipient is based in Houston.

Greentown Labs, dual located in Houston and Somerville, Massachusetts, has received a grant from the 10th cohort of the Economic Development Administration's “Build to Scale” program for its Houston location. The $53 million of funding was awarded to 60 organizations across 36 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. All of the programs support technology entrepreneurs across industries.

“The Biden-Harris Administration is Investing in America to help create entrepreneurial ecosystems across the country and put quality, 21st century job opportunities in people’s backyards,” Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo says in the press release. “The ‘Build to Scale’ program will unlock innovation potential in regions all over the nation, improving our economic competitiveness now, and for decades to come.”

According to the EDA, Greentown, located in a growing innovation district, will receive $400,000 with a $400,000 local match confirmed. The project, named Houston Ion District Investor Activation, is described as a way to create economic opportunity through equitable capital access.

"This project capitalizes on the need for jobs and economic development, especially in communities most vulnerable to the impacts of natural disasters," reads the project abstract. "EDA funding will enable the expansion of Greentown’s Investor Program into EDIJ, in partnership with the Ion, to further climate equity and resilience in Houston and empower underrepresented entrepreneurs as the city transitions from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy."

Greentown receives of of the 2023 Capital Challenge Grant Recipients. The other competition, the Venture Challenge, also awarded funding to another Houston organization. The Urban Partnerships Community Development Corporation received $741,925 to support the BioWell Start Accelerator Program, which is committed to scaling of bio-industrial startups.

“EDA is proud to partner with this year’s ‘Build to Scale’ grantees as they fuel regional innovation hubs and technology-based economic development strategies throughout the U.S.,” Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Alejandra Y. Castillo says in the release. “Investing in scalable startups and expanding access entrepreneurial capital will yield good-paying jobs, economic resiliency, and equitable growth in communities throughout America.”

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston-based Zeta Energy has fresh funding from the government. Image via Zeta Energy

Houston-based battery innovators receive $4M in federal funding

money moves

Houston-based Zeta Energy announced this week that it was selected to receive $4 million in federal funding for the development of efficient electric vehicle batteries.

The funds come from the U.S. Department of Energy's ARPA-E Electric Vehicles for American Low-Carbon Living, or EVs4ALL, program, which aims to increase the number of EVs on the roads by boosting the country’s supply chain of affordable, convenient, reliable and safe batteries.

Zeta Energy is one of 12 groups in the U.S. to receive funding from the program, which awarded $42 million in total.

“Electric vehicle sales in America have tripled since the start of this Administration and by addressing battery efficiency, resiliency and affordability, the projects announced today will make EVs attractive to even more drivers,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said in a statement released earlier this week. “This is a win-win for our efforts to fight climate change and power America’s clean transportation future with technologies produced by researchers and scientists right here at home.”

Other teams to receive funding include 24M Technologies, national laboratories and universities like The Ohio State University, University of Maryland, Virginia Tech, among others. Zeta is the only Texas-based company to receive funds. It received one of the largest grants among the group.

"We are thrilled to have been selected for funding by the ARPA-E EVs4ALL program," Zeta Energy CEO Tom Pilette said in a statement. "We have been working hard to make this technology a reality, and we are really grateful to receive this recognition of the promise of our technology and the progress we have made on it."

Zeta Energy is known for its lithium sulfur batteries that traditionally have not been long lasting. While sulfur is an economical and abundant material, it traditionally would dissolve after a few uses in lithium sulfur batteries.

However, Zeta uses its proprietary sulfur-based cathodes and lithium metal anodes that have shown to have higher capacity and density and better safety profiles, according to the company's website.

According to ARPAE, the company will create a new anode that will "be highly accessible and rechargeable" with the funding.

Zeta Energy

closed a $23 million series A round led by New York VC firm Moore Strategic Ventures about a year ago. In addition to applications for electric vehicles, the company's technology is also expected to have uses in grid energy storage.
Federal relief efforts can be confusing — are are four options from a local tax expert that are reliable for small business owners. Getty Images

Tax expert shares 4 COVID-19 relief options for Houston small businesses

Guest article

There's been a lot in the news lately about large companies securing large federal grants to soften the financial blow of the CORONA shutdown — to the exclusion of smaller businesses. And even with new legislation that could provide additional funding, small companies could still be left out.

Here are four ways that companies can garner some financial relief in these challenging financial times:

1. Delay of employer FICA contributions 

While most of the attention has been focused on the forgivable loans that are part of the CARES Act, the good news is that — if you dig deeper — the legislation also provides a postponement (not forgiveness) of the employer portion of FICA payments. These are available for payroll taxes due beginning on March 27 through year's end. Payments can be deferred with half due on December 31, 2021, and the remaining half on December 31, 2022.

2. Employee retention credits

This is fully refundable tax credit available for employers equal to 50 percent of qualified wages paid to employees. The retention credit applies to qualified wages paid after March 12, 2020, though the balance of this calendar year.

There is a cap to the amount of the credit, and the credit is only available to companies that either:

  1. Fully or partially suspended operation during any calendar quarter in 2020 due to orders from an appropriate governmental authority limiting commerce, travel, or group meetings (for commercial, social, religious, or other purposes) due to COVID-19; or
  2. Experienced a significant decline in gross receipts during the calendar quarter.

3. Carrying back Net Operating Losses (NOL)

Another often missed provision of the CARES Act is the ability for companies to carry back net operating losses from 2018 or 2019 to prior years (going back 5 years) and obtain refunds of previously paid taxes. The 2017 tax reform eliminated the ability to carry back NOLs, but the CARES Act has resurrected them.

4. Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) 

Employers with fewer than 500 employees may qualify for tax credits under the FFCRA, which was enacted on March 18. The legislation has two main sections: the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA), and the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (FMLA Expansion).

An eligible employer may claim a fully refundable tax credit equal to 100 percent of the qualified family leave wages (and allocable qualified health plan expenses and the eligible employer's share of Medicare tax on the qualified family leave wages) it pays.

Each company's situation is different, so we strongly suggest you speak with your tax adviser to see how these provisions might apply to you.

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Jason Sharp, CPA, is tax partner at Briggs & Veselka, Houston's largest locally owned CPA firm. He can be contacted a jsharp@bvccpa.com.

Houston startup Grant Source, which helps its clients find the right grants to apply for, has seen a surge in business amid the coronavirus shutdown. Getty Images

This Houston tech startup is helping businesses find the funds during COVID-19 crisis and beyond

Taken for granted

Since 2015, Grant Source has perfected the art of helping businesses, foundations, and organizations find and secure grant funding — and now their expertise has become vital to COVID-19 response initiatives.

With the devastation caused by the novel coronavirus, America's medical organizations have been scrambling to obtain the funds required to purchase the testing kits, masks, PPE, and other life-saving products needed to help curb the effects of the global pandemic and now, thanks to the mobile and web platform, they're getting the assistance they need to accomplish that goal.

"COVID-19 response is actually our claim to fame right now," says Allen Thornton, founder and CEO of Grant Source. "We have probably done more business in the last few months than we have since we started. Simply because we are helping people find grants with the CARES Act. There's over $500 billion out there, which has created overnight a $40 billion market opportunity for us."

Grant Source has worked extensively with city, county, state, and government agencies to secure grant funding, which is why they have become a game changer for those that need emergency capital to combat COVID-19's challenges.

"Initially, it was scary because we lost some of our clients, but then a bunch of medical clients came to us and asked if we could help them find funding for COVID-19 outreach," Thornton says. "We've found that they have a higher probability of success right now because with COVID-19 outreach, the procurement cycle has gone from six to nine months down to 30 days, which is unheard of."

In addition to telemedicine companies, Grant Source has been helping write grants for clients that range from airports to technology companies in order to help provide them with a path forward in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

Grant Source has created a database and a suite of resources for companies looking for grants. Photo via grantsource.com


Preventing federal funding waste

Outside of the context of a pandemic, the government uses grants as a way to fund ideas and projects that provide public services and stimulate the economy.

Grants are also essential when it comes to supporting critical recovery initiatives and innovative research, but on a fundamental level, very few even know how or where to start when it comes to applying for one and it becomes even more esoteric when it comes to getting funded. That's why so much grant money goes unclaimed, with millions of nonprofits and businesses going underfunded and not maximizing their impact.

"Over $3.2 billion in grant money goes unclaimed every single year," says Thornton. "We have a broken system and we wondered what we could do to change it, so we started Grant Source, our revolutionary grant funding system, to help organizations find and secure money for their mission."

Client-focused services and support

In addition to helping clients find grants, Grant Source assists with the necessary pre-work to apply for a grant.

"We started out as just a database where you could find grants and grant writers," says Thornton. "But in listening to our customers, they wanted us to do everything full service, too. So, I flew all across the country from Minneapolis to Kansas to Los Angeles to Toronto and put all the top grant writing associations on retainer and created what is Grant Source today, which is pretty much mobile for grants."

Thornton says Grant Source has more than 1,500 consultants across the U.S. and Canada, and these professionals each have different specialties — much like a lawyer or a doctor — and relationships in different states.

For a flat fee that ranges from $500 to $5,000 per month, Grant Source will set out to procure its clients grants that range anywhere from $50,000 to $1 million based on their goals. To date, Grant Source has helped businesses and organizations find and secure over $6 million in grant funding.

New clients first sign up for an assessment with Grant Source that establishes what the client's goals are and how the company is set up. Once Grant Source has established a few options for the client, they get started on submitting to the grants. In order to protect its customers from the uncertainty of the process, Grant Source offers investment protection for 12 months.

"We have the investment protection so customers won't be left empty handed," says Thornton. "It's risk free, so if they don't at least get their investment back within the first 12 months, we'll either continue their grant at no cost or we'll give them a credit for the difference."

Founded from a personal need

Treating customers with fairness is important for Grant Source because they started out as a nonprofit seeking grant funding themselves and soon learned that there was a lot that they did not know about the process.

"When I was at UTSA in 2006, the African American graduation population was less than 6 percent, which was unacceptable, so we started a nonprofit," says Thornton. "We made a lot of impact in just a few years. We increased the graduation population from 6 percent to about 38 percent, And, for the 2008 election, we were able to register over 3,200 students."

After graduation, Thornton says he saw an opportunity to expand to other colleges, but lacked funding to do so.

"We saw grants as a huge opportunity and they are, but unfortunately, they're also a huge hassle and it takes a lot of time and energy and effort to even find one that you qualify for," he remembers. "And even when you do, if you don't know how to write the proposal, you're dead in the water."

After the grant process failed, Thornton's money was gone with no communication or valid reason as to why. That frustrated him to the point where he wanted to provide coherent solutions to the problem himself.

"I spent a ton of money on education and researching top grant writing associations," says Thornton. "Most people don't know where to find grants, and there are so many different types of grants and places you can find them. For instance, we're working on a federal proposal with the federal government, there's 26 different agencies that still don't even know how to talk to each other."

Creating a lasting impact

From the outset, Grant Source started creating corporate responsibility programs and impact within a cost center for organizations that were for profit companies. They seek to put them in ideal situations to create the kind of impact that warrants grant funding.

"What we teach our clients is that you can't approach the process with the idea that you will get the grant money and then go out and create come impact," says Thornton. "You have to focus on being able to showcase the impact that you're already creating and then we can go find money for that. If you can articulate the impact of whatever you're doing is creating, we can find the person that cares about that.

In addition providing the software and platform for grant seekers, Grant Source offers a book, courses, seminars, workshops, and conferences that offer the baseline information needed to secure grant funding.

"At the end of the day, Grant Source is a technology platform that helps organizations find money for their mission," says Thornton. "We've streamlined the grant writing process and the grant finding process. At Grant Source, we don't focus on the money, we focus on the impact and then we give people a clear path to make it happen."

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

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.