A Houston-based biotech company has completed early testing for its groundbreaking insulin alternative and is headed toward clinical trials. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston biotech startup is one step closer to releasing its marquee drug for the global insulin market, which is projected to break the $90 billion threshold by 2029.

rBIO says it recently completed testing of the properties of R-biolin, an insulin drug that’s biologically identical to Novo Nordisk’s Novolin drug. The patent for Novolin about two decades ago. In March 2023, the Dutch drugmaker announced it was slashing the list price of Novolin by 65 percent to $48.20 per vial and $91.09 per FlexPen.

Executives at rBIO are now pursuing a partnership with a contract research organization to manage clinical trials of R-biolin. If those trials go well, R-biolin will seek approval to supply its insulin therapy to diabetes patients around the world.

Washington University in St. Louis is rBIO’s academic partner for the R-biolin project.

The rBIO platform produces insulin at greater yields that traditional manufacturing techniques do. The company is striving to drive down the cost of insulin by 30 percent.

About 38 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority being treated for type 2 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many people with diabetes must take insulin to control their blood sugar levels.

Research company iHealthcareAnalyst predicts the global market for insulin will surpass the $90 billion mark in 2029.

“There has been a lot of talk in the media about reducing the cost of insulin for diabetic patients, but what is often overlooked is that the domestic demand for insulin will soon outpace the supply, leading to a new host of issues,” Cameron Owen, co-founder and CEO of rBIO, says in a news release.

“We’re dedicated to addressing the growing demand for accessible insulin therapies, and … we’re thrilled to announce the viability of our highly scalable manufacturing process.”

Professionals from the University of California San Diego and Johns Hopkins University established rBIO in 2020. The startup moved its headquarters from San Diego to Houston in 2022.

CEO Cameron Owen and Chief Scientific Officer Deenadayalan Bakthavatsalam work on insulin purification in the Houston lab. Photo courtesy

The EnMed program is housed out of the Texas A&M University System's new Discovery Tower in the Texas Medical Center. Image via Facebook/TAMU EnMEd

Innovative Houston program that combines engineering, medicine to graduate inaugural class

first in class

Priya Arunachalam knew that she had a calling to heal, but she also has a mind for solving problems. After earning a B.S. in biomedical engineering and an MBA in healthcare management and entrepreneurship from Johns Hopkins University, the Austin native applied to medical schools knowing that her trajectory would be working as “a doctor-plus,” as she puts it.

Fortunately, a new program that combined the powers of Houston Methodist and Texas A&M University was recruiting its first graduating class. The School of Engineering Medicine allows students to simultaneously earn both a medical doctorate and a master of engineering degree in four years. It was the perfect fit.

On May 19, she will be among the 22 first students to earn those degrees. Five of them are staying on at Houston Methodist and Arunachalam is one of them.

“I am doing a general surgery residency at Houston Methodist. I am leaning towards transplant,” Arunachalam tells InnovationMap.

It’s no easy task to become a member of the EnMed program, as it’s informally known. Classes are capped at just 50 students a year, says Dr. Timothy Boone, director of education at Houston Methodist Academic Institute. He says that in the four years since EnMed launched, the size and diversity of the applicant pool has continued to grow, but it’s a very specific type of student they’re looking for.

Students must have an undergraduate degree in engineering, for one. That, Boone says, attracts problem solvers who also want to practice medicine.

“If you just think of it as a job, you’re in it for the wrong reasons,” he says.

Throughout their four years of education, students put their problem solving to the test. As they learn about medicine, the students see issues at a patient level and come up with engineering solutions.

One of Arunachalam’s creations in her time in EnMed was a redesigned hospital gown that allows for exams despite being less exposed in the back. She’s currently trying to pilot them at Houston Methodist Hospital.

Boone also mentions an ophthalmology student who has gained a preliminary patent on a design for a chair that accommodates more body types than those currently being used by most doctors. Another group of students created Go Baby Go, a toy car specifically designed for children with significant mobility impairment.

EnMed isn’t Houston Methodist’s only innovative collaboration. The University of St. Thomas Cameron School of Business joins forces with Houston Methodist to offer a master in clinical translation management program to teach students how to turn their ideas into thriving companies.

With Arunachalam’s business background, one might have expected her to follow such a path. But she says she prefers to create solutions and “find the right teams to take those ideas forward.”

Instead, her future is in surgery, which she says, is its own kind of engineering.

“I think they’re very similar," she says. "In engineering, we take apart a problem and put it back together a little better. In surgery you have a system that is malfunctioning and we have to find novel ways to fix it.”

And her and her classmates’ novel discoveries will soon be helping countless patients.

The EnMed program is graduating its first class this week. Photo via HoustonMethodist.org

Here's what student teams from around the world were invited to compete in the Rice Business Plan Competition. Photo via rice.edu

Annual student startup competition in Houston names teams for 2023

getting pitch perfect

Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has named the 42 student startup teams that were extended invitations to compete in the 23rd annual Rice Business Plan Competition

The 2023 startup competition will take place on Rice University campus May 11 to 13, and the teams representing 37 universities from six countries will pitch to investors, mentors, and other industry leaders for the chance to win funding and prizes. Last year's RBPC doled out nearly $2 million in investment prizes.

This year, Rice saw its largest number of student startups applying for the RBPC internal qualifier from within campus. The university selected three to move on to compete at RBPC in May — Sygne Solutions, Neurnano Therapeutics, and Tierra Climate, which also received a total of $5,000 in cash prizes to these top three teams.

The 2023 RBPC will focus on five categories: energy, cleantech and sustainability; life science and health care solutions; consumer products and services; hard tech; and digital enterprise.

This invited companies, if they attend, will join the ranks of the 784 teams that previously competed in RBPC and have raised more than $4.6 billion in capital, as well as seen more than 50 successful exits including five IPOs.

The 2023 Rice Business Plan Competition invitees, according to Rice University's news release:

  • Active Surfaces, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Adrigo Insights, Saint Mary’s University (Canada)
  • AirSeal, Washington University in St. Louis
  • Algbio, Yeditepe University (Turkey)
  • Arch Pet Food, University of Chicago
  • Astria Biosciences, University of Pittsburgh
  • Atma Leather, Yale University
  • Atop, UCLA
  • Biome Future, University of Florida
  • BioSens8, Boston University
  • BlueVerse, Texas Tech University
  • Boardible, Northwestern University
  • Boston Quantum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • ceres plant protein cereal, Tulane University
  • Citrimer, University of Michigan
  • Dart Bioscience, University of Oxford (United Kingdom)
  • DetoXyFi, Harvard University
  • E-Sentience, Duke University
  • Edulis Therapeutics, Carnegie Mellon University
  • FluxWorks, Texas A&M University
  • Integrated Molecular Innovations, Michigan Technological University
  • Inzipio, RWTH Aachen University (Germany)
  • LoopX AI, University of Waterloo (Canada)
  • Magnify Biosciences, Carnegie Mellon University
  • MiraHeart, Johns Hopkins University
  • MyLÚA, Cornell University
  • Outmore Living, University of Texas
  • Pathways, Harvard University
  • Pediatrica Therapeutics, University of Arkansas
  • Perseus Materials, Stanford University
  • Pike Robotics, University of Texas
  • Quantanx, Arizona State University
  • Sheza, San Diego State University
  • Skali, Northwestern University
  • Sundial Solar Components, University of Utah
  • Thryft Ship, University of Georgia
  • Tierra Climate, Rice University
  • TrashTrap Sustainability Solutions, Visvesvaraya Technological University (India)
  • Unchained, North Carolina A&T State University
  • Unsmudgeable, Babson College
  • Vivicaly, University of Pennsylvania
  • Zaymo, Brigham Young University
Here's what experiments TRISH is launching aboard Axiom Space's next mission. Photo via NASA

Houston space health institute to launch more experiments into space on upcoming mission

ready for takeoff

Houston's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, will launch six more experiments into space this spring aboard Axiom Space's Ax-2 mission, the organization announced this week.

The biomedical research conducted through TRISH, in consortium with CalTeach and MIT, will look into how space travel impacts everything from motion sickness to memory over the course of the mission's 10-day stint on the International Space Station.

The crew will consist of four astronauts: Commander Peggy Whitson (previously with NASA), Pilot John Shoffner and Mission Specialists Ali AlQarni and Rayyanah Barnawi. It's a historic team, bringing the first female private space crew commander and the first Saudi astronauts to the ISS.

“Insights gathered from this work improve our understanding of how the human body and mind respond to spaceflight, helping us to prepare future astronauts to remain safe and healthy during longer-duration missions," Dr. Dorit Donoviel, TRISH executive director and professor in the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a statement.

The six projects onboard the mission have been developed by researchers within TRISH as well as the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University and Baylor College of Medicine. They aim to assess the following:

  • Spaceflight participants’ performance in memory, abstraction, spatial orientation, emotion recognition, risk decision making and sustained attention before and after the mission -Astronauts’ inner ears and eyes' response to motion before and after space travel and how this relates to motion sickness and nausea during launch and landing
  • The effects of spaceflight on the human body at the genomic level
  • Changes to the eyes and brain during spaceflight
  • Astronaut's sleep, personality, health history, team dynamics and immune-related symptoms
  • Sensorimotor abilities and changes in space and how this can impact astronauts' ability to stand, balance and have full body control on the moon

Some of this information will become part of TRISH’s Enhancing eXploration Platforms and ANalog Definition, or EXPAND, program, which aims to boost human health on commercial space flights through its database. The program launched in 2021.

Ax-2 is Axiom's second all-private astronaut mission to the ISS and will launch out of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard a SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft. Axiom was first established in 2016 with the goal of building the world's first commercial space station.

TRISH is also slated to launch nine experiments on board SpaceX's Polaris Dawn mission, which is now expected to launch this summer. The research aboard Polaris Dawn is intended to complement research supported by TRISH on the Inspiration4 all-civilian mission to orbit, which was also operated by SpaceX in 2021.

The Rice Business Plan Competition is back in person this year, and these are the 42 teams that will go head to head for investments and prizes. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University's student startup competition names 42 teams to compete for over $1 million in prizes

ready to pitch

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship and the Jones Graduate School of Business have announced the 42 student teams that will compete in the 2022 Rice Business Plan Competition, which returns to an in-person format on the Rice University campus in April.

Of the teams competing for more than $1 million in prizes and funding in this year's competition, six hail from Texas — two teams each from Rice University, University of Texas at Austin, and Texas A&M University. The student competitors represent 31 universities — including three from European universities. The 42 teams were narrowed down from over 400 applicants and divided into five categories: energy, cleantech and sustainability; life sciences and health care solutions; consumer products and services; hard tech; and digital enterprise.

This is the first in-person RBPC since 2019, and the university is ready to bring together the entrepreneurs and a community of over 250 judges, mentors, and investors to the competition.

“As we come out on the other side of a long and challenging two years, we're feeling a sense of renewal and energy as we look to the future and finding inspiration from the next generation of entrepreneurs who are building a better world,” says Catherine Santamaria, director of the RBPC, in a news release.

“This year's competition celebrates student founders with a strong sense of determination — founders who are ready to adapt, build and grow companies that can change the future,” she continues. “We hope their participation will provide guidance and inspiration for our community.”

According to a news release, this year's RBPC Qualifier Competition, which narrowed down Rice's student teams that will compete in the official competition, saw the largest number of applicants, judges, and participants in the competition’s history. The Rice Alliance awarded a total of $5,000 in cash prizes to the top three teams from the internal qualifier: EpiFresh, Green Room and Anvil Diagnostics. From those three, Rice teams EpiFresh and Green Room received invitations to compete in the 2022 RBPC..

The full list of student teams that will be competing April 7 to 9 this year include:

  • Acorn Genetics from Northwestern University
  • Advanced Optronics from Carnegie Mellon University
  • Aethero Space from University of Missouri
  • AImirr from University of Chicago
  • AiroSolve from UCLA
  • Algeon Materials from UC San Diego
  • Anise Health from Harvard University
  • Beyond Silicon from Arizona State University
  • Bold Move Beverages from University of Texas at Austin
  • Diamante from University of Verona
  • EarthEn from Arizona State University
  • Empower Sleep from University of Pennsylvania
  • EpiFresh from Rice University
  • EpiSLS from University of Michigan
  • Green Room from Rice University
  • Horizon Health Solutions from University of Arkansas
  • Hoth Intelligence from Thomas Jefferson University
  • INIA Biosciences from Boston University
  • Invictus BCI from MIT
  • Invitris from Technical University of Munich (TUM)
  • KLAW Industries from Binghamton University
  • LIDROTEC from RWTH Aachen
  • Locus Lock from University of Texas at Austin
  • LymphaSense from Johns Hopkins University
  • Mallard Bay Outdoors from Louisiana State University
  • Mantel from MIT
  • Olera from Texas A&M University
  • OpenCell AI from Weill Cornell Medicine
  • OraFay from UCLA
  • Pareto from Stanford University
  • Photonect Interconnect Solutions from University of Rochester
  • PLAKK from McGill University
  • PneuTech from Johns Hopkins University
  • Rola from UC San Diego
  • RotorX from Georgia Tech
  • SimulatED from Carnegie Mellon University
  • SuChef from University of Pennsylvania
  • Symetric Finance from Fairfield University
  • Teale from Texas A&M University
  • Team Real Talk from University at Buffalo
  • TransCrypts from Harvard University
  • Woobie from Brigham Young University
Last year's awards had 54 student teams competing virtually, with over $1.4 million in cash and prizes awarded. Throughout RBPC's history, competitors have gone onto raise more than $3.57 billion in capital and more than 259 RBPC alumni have successfully launched their ventures. Forty RBPC startups that have had successful exits through acquisitions or trading on a public market, per the news release.
The 20th annual Rice Business Plan Competition took place virtually from June 17 to 19 and awarded over $1.2 million in investment and cash prizes. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University student startup competition names 2020 winners and awards over $1.2M in prizes

big money

For the 20th year, the Rice Business Plan Competition has awarded prizes and investments to student-led startups from around the ward. While this year's competition was postponed and virtually held, the show went on with 42 startups pitching virtually June 17 to 19.

After whittling down the 42 startups to seven finalists, the RBPC judges named the winners. And, this year, all seven finalists walked away with a monetary prize. Here's how the finalists cleaned up.

  • Aurign, which provides publishing services for recording artists and record labels, from Georgia State University, won first place and the $350,000 grand prize from GOOSE Capital. Aurign also won RG Advisory Partners' prize of $25,000, bringing the company's total to $375,000 won.
  • Coming in second place with a $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce) was Dartmouth College's nanopathdx, which is creating diagnostic tools for chronic and infectious diseases. Nanopathdx won two other monetary prizes — the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from Pearland Economic Development and Ncourage's $25,000 award focused on female entrepreneurs — for a total of $150,000 won. The company also won the Palo Alto Software Live Plan award and an award from SheSpace.
  • Harvard University's Fractal — a cloud computing tech company that enables powerful remote work tools — won third place and a $50,000 investment from Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce. The company also won an $100,000 investment from the Houston Angel Network, bringing their total prize to $150,000.
  • In fourth place was RefresherBoxx from RWTH Aachen University in Germany. The company has created disinfecting devices for clothing and recently pivoted to create a COVID-19 application. The startup won a $5,000 prize sponsored by Norton Rose Fulbright for placing in the finals, but also walked away with a $100,000 investment from TiE Houston Angels, bringing the startup's total prize money to $105,000.
  • The University of Chicago's Beltech, which has created a safer, longer lasting battery, won fifth place and a $5,000 award sponsored by EY. The company also won an $100,000 investment from the Houston Angel Network, bringing the total amount won to to $105,000.
  • Cardiosense from Northwestern University, which has created a wearable heart monitor device, took sixth place in the competition and won a $5,000 award sponsored by Chevron Technology Ventures. Cardiosense also won two other monetary prizes — TMC Innovation's $100K TMC Healthcare Innovation investment and NASA's $25,000 Human Health and Performance Award — bringing the total amount won to $130,000. The company also won OFW Law's prize.
  • Relavo, a safer home dialysis treatment company from Johns Hopkins University, came in seventh place and won a $5,000 prize sponsored by Shell Ventures. Relavo also won three other monetary prizes — the $25,000 Pediatric Device Prize from the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium, Ncourage's $25,000 award focused on female entrepreneurs, and Polsinelli's $15,000 technology prize — bringing the startup's total prize money to $70,000.
Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary prizes. Here's a list of those.
  • BIOMILQ, a female-founded startup out of Duke University that can cultivate breast milk outside of the body, won The Artemis Fund's $100,000 prize.
  • The University of Maryland's Algen Air — a natural air purifier that uses algae to filter air — won NASA's $25,000 Space Exploration Award.
  • SlumberFlow — a sleep apnea treatment device from the University of Michigan — won the the $25,000 Pediatric Device Prize from the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium.
  • Rice University's own EVA, which streamlines vascular access for medical professionals, won the Texas Business Hall of Fame's $25,000 prize.
  • Contraire — a predictive analysis control system for aeration process within municipal wastewater treatment plants — from Oklahoma State University won Polsinelli's $15,000 Energy Innovation prize.
While not ready to name investment recipients at the virtual event, the Owl Investment Group announced they will be inviting some companies to pitch to them directly.
Additional non-monetary prizes included:
  • Capital Factory's Golden Ticket prize to EVA from Rice University, NanoCare from Texas State University, and SeebeckCellTechnologies from the University of Texas at Arlington.
  • MercuryFund'sElevatorPitch winners included: KnoNap from Georgetown University (first place), Steeroflex from the University of California San Diego (second place), Encapsulate from the University of Connecticut (third place), RefresherBoxx (fourth place), and NanoCare from Texas State University (fifth place).
The virtual event wrapped up with the announcement of the 21st annual RBPC, which is set for April 8 to 10 next year.
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Houston organizations launch collaborative center to boost cancer outcomes

new to HOU

Rice University's new Synthesis X Center officially launched last month to bring together experts in cancer care and chemistry.

The center was born out of what started about seven years ago as informal meetings between Rice chemist Han Xiao's research group and others from the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. The level of collaboration between the two teams has grown significantly over the years, and monthly meetings now draw about 100 participants from across disciplines, fields and Houston-based organizations, according to a statement from Rice.

Researchers at the new SynthX Center will aim to turn fundamental research into clinical applications and make precision adjustments to drug properties and molecules. It will focus on improving cancer outcomes by looking at an array of factors, including prevention and detection, immunotherapies, the use of artificial intelligence to speed drug discovery and development, and several other topics.

"At Rice, we are strong on the fundamental side of research in organic chemistry, chemical biology, bioengineering and nanomaterials,” Xiao says in the statement. “Starting at the laboratory bench, we can synthesize therapeutic molecules and proteins with atom-level precision, offering immense potential for real-world applications at the bedside ... But the clinicians and fundamental researchers don’t have a lot of time to talk and to exchange ideas, so SynthX wants to serve as the bridge and help make these connections.”

SynthX plans to issue its first merit-based seed grants to teams with representatives from Baylor and Rice this month.

With this recognition from Rice, the teams from Xiao's lab and the TMC will also be able to expand and formalize their programs. They will build upon annual retreats, in which investigators can share unpublished findings, and also plan to host a national conference, the first slated for this fall titled "Synthetic Innovations Towards a Cure for Cancer.”

“I am confident that the SynthX Center will be a great resource for both students and faculty who seek to translate discoveries from fundamental chemical research into medical applications that improve people’s lives,” Thomas Killian, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, says in the release.

Rice announced that it had invested in four other research centers along with SynthX last month. The other centers include the Center for Coastal Futures and Adaptive Resilience, the Center for Environmental Studies, the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies and the Rice Center for Nanoscale Imaging Sciences.

Earlier this year, Rice also announced its first-ever recipients of its One Small Step Grant program, funded by its Office of Innovation. The program will provide funding to faculty working on "promising projects with commercial potential," according to the website.

Houston physicist scores $15.5M grant for high-energy nuclear physics research

FUTURE OF PHYSICS

A team of Rice University physicists has been awarded a prestigious grant from the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Physics for their work in high-energy nuclear physics and research into a new state of matter.

The five-year $15.5 million grant will go towards Rice physics and astronomy professor Wei Li's discoveries focused on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a large, general-purpose particle physics detector built on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, a European organization for nuclear research in France and Switzerland. The work is "poised to revolutionize our understanding of fundamental physics," according to a statement from Rice.

Li's team will work to develop an ultra-fast silicon timing detector, known as the endcap timing layer (ETL), that will provide upgrades to the CMS detector. The ETl is expected to have a time resolution of 30 picoseconds per particle, which will allow for more precise time-of-flight particle identification.

The Rice team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas. Photo via Rice.edu

This will also help boost the performance of the High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC), which is scheduled to launch at CERN in 2029, allowing it to operate at about 10 times the luminosity than originally planned. The ETL also has applications for other colliders apart from the LHC, including the DOE’s electron-ion collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.

“The ETL will enable breakthrough science in the area of heavy ion collisions, allowing us to delve into the properties of a remarkable new state of matter called the quark-gluon plasma,” Li explained in a statement. “This, in turn, offers invaluable insights into the strong nuclear force that binds particles at the core of matter.”

The ETL is also expected to aid in other areas of physics, including the search for the Higgs particle and understanding the makeup of dark matter.

Li is joined on this work by co-principal investigator Frank Geurts and researchers Nicole Lewis and Mike Matveev from Rice. The team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas.

Last year, fellow Rice physicist Qimiao Si, a theoretical quantum physicist, earned the prestigious Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship grant. The five-year fellowship, with up to $3 million in funding, will go towards his work to establish an unconventional approach to create and control topological states of matter, which plays an important role in materials research and quantum computing.

Meanwhile, the DOE recently tapped three Houston universities to compete in its annual startup competition focused on "high-potential energy technologies,” including one team from Rice.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.