This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Isabella Schmitt of Proxima Clinical Research, Rob Schapiro of Microsoft, and Lara Cottingham of Greentown Labs. Photos courtesy

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

Isabella Schmitt, director of regulatory affairs at Proxima Clinical Research and principal at M1 MedTech

A Houston life science expert shares what she thinks Houston needs to work on to continue growing as an health care innovation ecosystem. Photo courtesy

Houston is home to the world's largest medical center, but it still tends to fall behind other metros when it comes to life science innovation hub rankings. Isabella Schmitt, director of regulatory affairs at Proxima Clinical Research and principal at M1 MedTech, writes in a guest column for InnovationMap about why this is — and what can be done to change that.

"Houston's life sciences sector holds immense growth potential, but addressing funding, talent recruitment, regulatory navigation, and collaboration challenges is needed for continued success," she writes. "By tackling these issues and leveraging its unique strengths, Houston can establish itself as a significant player in the global life sciences arenas. If we wait too long, we won’t be able to truly establish the Third Coast because another player will come into the mix, and we’ll lose companies like BioMatrix to their golden shores." Read more.

Rob Schapiro, Energy Acceleration Program director and Houston site leader for Microsoft

Rob Schapiro of Microsoft joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss DEI initiatives, translating between the tech in the energy sectors, AI, and more. Photo courtesy of Microsoft

At a glance, Rob Schapiro admits his resume might not make the most sense. A trained geologist with decades of experience in the energy sector, Schapiro made the move to Microsoft three years ago.

"I saw this disconnect between technology companies and energy companies — they didn't really speak the same language," he says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I thought I could help potentially solve this problem and work between the two as a sort of translator."

Now, as Microsoft’s Energy Acceleration Program director and site leader for the company’s Houston office, which is located in the Ion, Schapiro is deeply embedded in Houston's innovation ecosystem and is dedicated to helping advance Houston's role energy transition in a sustainable and equitable way. Read more.

Lara Cottingham, vice president of strategy, policy, and climate impact at Greentown Labs

Greentown Houston is asking its current and potential members what they want in a wet lab. Photo via GreentownLabs.com

Greentown Labs is in the early stages of building out a wet lab for its members. But first, Lara Cottingham, vice president of strategy, policy, and climate impact at Greentown Labs, says they want to know what their members actually want.

"We want to announce to the community that this is something we're going to build — but we still need a lot of feedback and input from startups so we can learn what exactly they need or want to see from the wet lab," Cottingham tells InnovationMap. "No two wet labs are the same."

Right now, there aren't any details available about timeline or specifics of the new facility. Greentown is prioritizing getting feedback from its members and having conversations with potential sponsors and corporate partners. Read more.

A Houston life science expert shares what she thinks Houston needs to work on to continue growing as an health care innovation ecosystem. Photo via Getty Images

Expert: Houston has potential to be a major hub for life sciences — if it addresses these concerns

guest column

Once upon a time in Houston, a promising startup, let’s call it BioMatrix, set out to revolutionize the world of biomaterials. Their groundbreaking product held immense potential, but the company faced the harsh reality of a lack of funding, resources, and talent in their local life sciences sector.

As they watched well-funded competitors in established hubs like Boston and Silicon Valley flourish, the passionate team at BioMatrix persevered, determined to overcome these challenges, and make their mark in the rapidly evolving world of MedTech and life sciences. But would they ultimately move to a richer life science hub?

Over the years, Houston has emerged as a life sciences hub, fueled by the world's largest medical center, Texas Medical Center, and an expanding network of research institutions, startups, and investors. However, despite all its potential, the city still lags other innovation hubs and isn’t included in many of the lists for top life science ecosystems. The challenges are many-fold, but some primary challenges are associated with lack of capital, trouble with talent acquisition, and weak collaboration.

Despite an uptick in venture capital funding, Houston's life sciences sector still trails the likes of Silicon Valley and Boston. Programs like CPRIT help keep companies within Texas, while Houston's unique advantages, such as lower living costs and the TMC's presence, can attract investments, but ultimately, to secure necessary capital, stakeholders must cultivate relationships with investors, government agencies, and other funding sources to infuse more money into the Houston ecosystem. And, when individuals try to do this, the rest of the ecosystem must be supportive.

Talent retention and attraction pose another challenge, as Houston competes with well-funded life science hubs offering abundant research institutions and funding opportunities. While Houston boasts numerous educational institutions producing skilled life sciences graduates, many curricula primarily prepare students for academic rather than industry careers, creating a skills and knowledge gap.

Having a lot of experience in academia doesn’t often translate well into the industry, as is demonstrated by many startup founders who struggle to understand the various stakeholder requirements in bringing a life science product to market.

To bridge this, educational institutions should incorporate more industry-oriented courses and training programs, like Rice University’s GMI Program, that emphasize practical skills and real-world applications. Collaborating with local companies for internships, co-op placements, and hands-on experiences can expose students to industry practices and foster valuable connections.

For any life science company, navigating the intricate regulatory landscape is also a challenge, as missteps can be disastrous. However, it’s even more of a challenge when you lack the fundamentals knowledge of what is required and the skills to effectively engage with industry experts in the space.

To address this, Houston must provide more opportunities for companies to learn about regulatory complexities from experts. Workshops, accelerators, or dedicated graduate and undergraduate courses focusing on regulatory compliance and best practices can facilitate knowledge and experience exchange between regulatory experts and innovators.

The initial inception of M1 MedTech was the result of a personal experience with a company who didn’t understand the fundamentals for regulatory interactions and didn’t know how to appropriately engage with consultants, resulting in time and money wasted.

Enhancing collaboration among Houston's life science stakeholders — including academia, research institutions, healthcare providers, subject matter experts, innovators, and investors — is fundamental for growth. A robust and lively professional network can stimulate innovation and help emerging companies access essential resources.

To this end, Houston should organize more industry-specific events, workshops, and conferences, connecting key life science players and showcasing the city's commitment to innovation. These events can also offer networking opportunities with industry leaders, attracting and retaining top talent. We’ve seen some of this with the Texas Life Science Forum and now with the Ion's events, but we could afford to host a lot more.

Houston's life sciences sector holds immense growth potential, but addressing funding, talent recruitment, regulatory navigation, and collaboration challenges is needed for continued success. By tackling these issues and leveraging its unique strengths, Houston can establish itself as a significant player in the global life sciences arenas. If we wait too long, we won’t be able to truly establish the Third Coast because another player will come into the mix, and we’ll lose companies like BioMatrix to their golden shores.

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Isabella Schmitt is the director of regulatory affairs at Proxima Clinical Research and principal at M1 MedTech.

Five companies have been selected for a brand new accelerator program in Houston. Image via Getty Images

Houston medtech accelerator announces inaugural cohort

future of health care

A Houston medical technology organization has announced the inaugural cohort of a new early-stage accelerator.

M1 MedTech, launched this year by Houston-based Proxima Clinical Research, announced its Fall 2022 cohort.

“This initial cohort launches M1 MedTech with an interactive 14-week agenda covering the basics every emerging MedTech business needs to progress from a startup to an established solution in their market,” says Sean Bittner, director of programs at M1 MedTech, in a news release.

The accelerator will equip early-stage startups with storytelling, business plan support, investor connections, FDA guidance, research, and more through one-on-one consultations, workships, and in-kind services.

The first cohort includes five startups, per the release from the company:

  1. Linovasc. Providing a long overdue major update to balloon angioplasty devices in over 50 years, the Linovasc solution offers a safer branch occlusion and aortic stent dilatation using a toroidal balloon that expands the aorta uniformly without the ischemia caused by current treatments. The company is founded by Bruce Addis.
  2. Grapheton. Founded by Sam Kassegne and Bao Nguyen, Grapheton's patented carbon materials work with electrically active devices to improve the longevity and outcome of bioelectric implants in the body. Terry Lingren serves as the CEO of the startup.
    • Rhythio Medical. Founded by Kunal Shah and Savannah Esteve, Rhythio is the first preventative approach to heart arrhythmias.The chief medical officer is Dr. Mehdi Razavi.
      • PONS Technology. An AI cognitive functioning ultrasound device attempting to change the way ultrasound is done, PONS is founded by CEO: Soner Haci and CTO: Ilker Hacihaliloglu.
        • Vivifi Medical. Founded by CEO Tushar Sharma, Vivifi is the first suture-less laparoscopic technology that connects vessels to improve male infertility and benign prostatic hyperplasia. The company's senior R&D engineer is Frida Montoya.

          The program includes support from sponsors and experts from: Proxima Clinical Research, Greenlight Guru, Medrio, Galen Data, Merge Medical Device Studio, Venn Negotiation, Engagement PR & Marketing, Aleberry Creative, and others.

          “This is an amazing opportunity for emerging founders to learn the progression of pipelining their ideas through the FDA and absorb the critical strategies for success early in their business development,” says Isabella Schmitt, principal at M1 MedTech and director of regulatory affairs at Proxima CRO, in the release.

          Proxima Clinical Research has its New Year's resolution and is ready to start working hands on with health tech startups. Graphic via proximacro.com

          Houston organization plans to launch health tech accelerator in 2022

          ready to grow

          A contract research organization based in Houston has announced its new accelerator program aimed at helping startups quickly grow their health tech businesses.

          Proxima Clinical Research released details of M1 MedTech, which expects to launch early next year. The CRO has raised funds to launch and invest in members of the inaugural cohort.

          “Our goal is to move these companies substantially forward in a short amount of time,” says Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima, in a news release. “Proxima is in a unique position to leverage our experienced team of regulatory, quality, and clinical experts. We won’t be working at arm’s length from these companies. We will be a big part of what they do every day.”

          The program will focus on a small group of companies and the Proxima team will provide hands-on support, including instruction, workshops, and one-on-one mentoring.

          “This will be a unique experience for all parties involved, as Proxima is also a young, yet established, company that is now creating a program to assist companies at an earlier stage,” says Larry Lawson, co-founder of Proxima, in the release. “Our experience in the CRO realm and ability to provide coaching in clinical, regulatory, quality, and go-to-market strategies will only strengthen M1 MedTech’s ability to support the success of emerging companies and provide more life-saving technology to the public.”

          Kevin Coker and Larry Lawson co-founded Proxima in 2017. Photos courtesy

          The accelerator will target Class II and III medical devices for its initial cohort. In the future, Proxima plans to expand to include an even more extensive incubator focused solely on Class III devices, according to the release.

          “M1 will be a place where startups can go to receive concrete resources to further their development. The participant success is our sole focus, and the ultimate goal is to have a substantial impact on the ideation-to-market process for Class II and Class III medical devices,” says Isabella Schmitt, director of regulatory affairs at Proxima and a principal at M1, in the release. “Proxima’s specific expertise alongside our M1 partners will provide resources for all key areas of a medical device entrepreneur’s journey to market and beyond.”

          The M1 MedTech applications will open online in the spring.

          “We don’t view M1 as competitive to other accelerators, rather we believe it will offer a different experience. Our team will strive to create a personalized program where companies have a dedicated touch point throughout the process,” says Sean Bittner, director of programs at M1 MedTech, in the release. “We will also provide specific, tailored connections and resources vetted by our team through professional partnerships, not just a general list of industry contacts.”

          One way to move the needle on developing femtech, according to this expert, is to make sure women have a seat at the table at venture firms funding the innovations. Photo via Getty Images

          The growing femtech industry needs more attention — and funds, says this Houston expert

          guest column

          Femtech is a term that is generally given to medical products, software, and technologies that aim to enhance the health and wellbeing of women. But when people think of femtech, things like period tracker apps and pregnancy tests are usually the first things to come to mind. While those developments are important and used regularly, there are other diseases and chronic issues affecting women that need to be talked about as well.

          The concept of femtech shouldn't replace "women's health" which considers broader issues, such as endometriosis and PCOS, as well as other conditions — such as heart disease — common to both men and women but clinically different in the latter. Femtech investors, manufacturers, and health advocates should focus on creating solutions for all issues and diseases that affect women, not just the most obvious.

          However, more education and awareness is necessary to bring these issues to the forefront, as many people are not aware about how certain chronic issues and diseases affect women differently than they may affect men. For example, heart disease is the leading cause of death in women and men, but if you close your eyes and envision someone having a heart attack — do you see a man? Or a woman? Probably a man. And you're not alone. Because so much of our healthcare research has focused primarily on men, we are programmed to think of certain conditions affecting men predominantly when they are truly major health issues for both.

          Similarly, when it comes to memory loss, women have a 1 in 5 chance of developing Alzheimer's disease compared to men being 1 in 11. Additionally, out of the more than 5 million people living with Alzheimer's in the U.S., 3.2 million are women. While there aren't as many Femtech-related products or solutions focused on these issues, there should be, especially in a rapidly growing industry.

          According to the U.S. Clinical Laboratory Test Market, the femtech industry is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of more than 13 percent. Frost and Sullivan predicts the global Femtech market revenue will reach $1.1 billion by 2024, and BIS Research forecasts that by 2030 the sector will hit $3.04 billion. But even with great momentum, there is a knowledge gap that needs to be bridged. Overall, the industry has been underfunded and many opportunities have been overlooked, not necessarily because of gender. But, because investors in the industry are predominantly men, there is a lack of education and understanding of why these products are needed.

          A solution would be for more women to become investors. Women have the personal experience and a better understanding of how these products will benefit them, which allows them to better understand the story told, increasing the chance the product will be funded and brought to market. To fund life-changing inventions for women, we need to have women involved, which means we need women to step into the investment community. Until more women get a seat at the investment table, women in femtech who are looking for investors need to be prepared to share real life stories and provide as much information as possible to have a better chance of securing funding.

          The femtech industry is growing, and we will continue to see innovative devices and apps brought to market. With more education, a better understanding of other issues that affect women, and more female investors, the industry has the potential to take its growth to a new level.

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          Isabella Schmitt currently serves as the director of regulatory affairs at Proxima Clinical Research Inc.
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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.