Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Heart disease is one of the most common causes of death in the United States — one in five deaths, according to the CDC. But there's not a long-term solutions for patients — even for those lucky enough to have a successful heart transplant. But a Houston-headquartered medical device company is working on one.

BiVACOR has created a technology that, theoretically, could completely replace a patient's heart and last them the rest of their lives.

"The design is critical," says Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR, on the Houston Innovators Podcast. He joined the organization last year after spending 20 years of a heart surgeon, then transitioning to medical device development over a decade ago.

Vassiliades explains the industry's challenges on the show, saying that there's no comprehensive, lasting replacement to the human heart on the market. While some treatments — like transplants and medical devices that partially replace the heart's capabilities — exist, nothing that completely replaces the heart lasts longer than 10 to 12 years.

"The BiVACOR system is based on magnetic levitation," Vassiliades says about the technology. "Our pump is just one moving impeller that sits in the middle of the housing where the blood is. Imagine an artificial heart — the container that has your blood — and the device spinning in the inside — basically a wheel spinning your blood to the rest of your body.

"The device is suspended by magnets — it's not touching anything," he continues. "So, theoretically, the device has no wear and can last as long as the patient can possibly live. That's new to the field."

Daniel Timms, BiVACOR's founder and CTO, knew there had to be a better, more permanent solution and has been working on the technology since he was a postdoctoral student at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. His work took him to Houston's Texas Heart Institute, the "center of the universe when it comes to blood pumps," says Vassiliades.

The company recently raised $18 million in funding to support its growing team and continued growth. BiVACOR is a Class 3 medical device — the most rigorously regulated type of device, so the funding raised will support the company as it continues to meet the FDA's requirements and proceeds into implantation and clinical trials.

While headquartered in Houston and has close ties to THI, most of BiVACOR's team works out of Huntington Beach, California, just 30 minutes away from its manufacturing partner — something that has been critical for the design phase. Other employees work in Europe and Australia, which has resulted in government grant funding. Each market the company works in has a strategic purpose — and Houston's role is testing.

"We're going to be training all our clinical sites in Houston, and we're going to continue to do ongoing testing," he says. "We're very comfortable with the design of the device, ... but there's always more. And we have a long-term plan to iterate on the device to make it even better."

Vassiliades shares more of the challenges he's facing as he commercializes BiVACOR's technology on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Houston-based Procyrion has closed a $30 million round — doubling its total funding to date. Getty Images

Houston medical device company closes $30 million round

Follow the money

A clinical-stage medical device company based in Houston has rounded up $30 million for its Series D funding. Procyrion Inc.'s round was lead by Bluebird Ventures — a new funding partner for the company.

Procyrion is developing a blood pump, called the Aortix™ system, that's optimized for patients with heart and kidney failure. Joining in on the round with Bluebird are return investors, including Fannin Partners, Scientific Health Development, the State of Texas, and an undisclosed strategic investor. This round has now more than doubled the company's total funding, bringing that figure now to $59 million.

"Of the more than 1 million patients per year in the U.S. admitted to the hospital with acute decompensated heart failure, 25 to 30 percent also have worsening renal function," says Eric S. Fain, president and CEO of the company, in a release. "These are typically the most difficult to treat patients with high mortality and rehospitalization rates."

The funds, Fain says, will go toward advancing the medical device, specifically enhancing the system's ability to decongest cardio renal patients in the company's pilot program.

"Today there is a major gap in effective therapies that are available to treat these critically ill patients, and as such, there is a significant opportunity to improve patient outcomes," Fain continues in the release. "The Aortix device is uniquely designed and positioned in the body to simultaneously decrease the workload of the heart and improve kidney function."

The Aortix device is a solution for patients who haven't seen success from medical therapy, but don't have the immediate need for a transplant or more drastic solution. The device is thinner than a pencil, the release says, and can be inserted in a matter of minutes in a cath-lab setting. The size and ease of application could be transformational for the large population of heart patients that would need it.

In addition to the funds, Jeff Bird, managing director of Bluebird Ventures, will join the company's board of directors.

"The Procyrion Aortix device provides an elegant solution for managing heart failure, a serious and difficult-to-treat problem," says Bird in the release. "We are excited to work with this experienced team as they begin clinical testing."


The device is thinner than a pencil and can be inserted in less than 10 minutes. Photo via procyrion.com

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.