Houston regenerative medicine company opens new lab at UH

cell therapy innovation

FibroBiologics is opening a unique new lab at the University of Houston's Technology Bridge. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Pete O’Heeron wants you to know that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was originally released as a B-side. What does this nugget about Queen have to do with regenerative medicine? For O’Heeron and his company, FibroBiologics, it means everything.

That’s because most scientists consider stem cells the A-side when it comes to the race to curing disease. But FibroBiologics has set its sights on fibroblasts. The most common cell in the body, fibroblasts are the main cell type in connective tissue.

“Everyone was betting on stem cells, and we started betting on fibroblasts,” says O’Heeron, who started the company in 2008 as SpinalCyte. “I think what we're going to see is that fibroblasts are going to end up winning, there are more robust, more that are lower cost cell, they have higher therapeutic values, higher immune modulation. They're just a better overall cell than the than the stem cells.”

Since a neurosurgeon and a dermatologist first introduced O’Heeron to the idea of using fibroblasts to regrow discs in the spine, the company has expanded its reach to include promising treatments for multiple sclerosis and cancer and in wound care. Imagine a world where doctors lay fibroblasts directly onto surgical incisions after surgery, cutting the time for healing in half.

FibroBiologics has organically written and filed more than 320 patents.

“It's quite a unique situation. I don’t think that in other areas of science that you have such a wide open area to go out and patent. It's just it was a brand new area nobody had been working on,” O’Heeron explains.

And soon, investors will be able to own a stake in the impressive work being forged in Houston. FibroBiologics, previously FibroGenesis, was formed in order to go public in a direct NASDAQ listing. The goal is to access the capital necessary to go to human trials. Earlier this year, the company also launched a crowdfunding campaign.

“We’ve had really fantastic results with animals and now we’re ready for humans,” says O’Heeron. “We've done small human trials, but we haven't done the large ones that are going to get the commercialization approval from the FDA.”

With that in mind, the company just signed a deal with University of Houston’s Innovation Center. On Thursday, September 7, FibroBiologics will dedicate the Newlin-Linscomb Lab for Cell Therapies in the UH Technology Bridge. The new lab is named for former player and color commentator for the Houston Rockets, Mike Newlin and his wife, Cindy, as well as Pam and Dan Linscomb, a founding partner of Kuhl-Linscomb, one of the largest wealth management companies in Houston.

Other big local names newly attached to the company are astronaut Kate Rubins and Elizabeth Shpall, the director of the cell therapy laboratory at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Both have joined FibroBiologics as members of its scientific advisory board.

To fill the lab, O’Heeron says that he is adding to his team as quickly as he is able. The barrier is the fact that there are few, if any people in the world with the exact qualifications he’s seeking.

“Anytime you're breaking new scientific ground, you can't really just go out and recruit someone with that background because it really doesn't exist,” he says. But he is willing to teach and challenge scientists who are the right fit, and is hoping to expand the team in the new lab.

But like Queen did in 1975, FibroBiologics is pioneering a category of its own. And that’s something worth betting on.

Space experts discussed the city's role in the space industry at a recent event. Photo via NASA

Overheard: Houston needs to strengthen infrastructure, workforce to maintain Space City status

eavesdropping in houston

In no time at all, humans will return to the moon and as they make the first spacewalks in fifty years — wearing suits designed in Houston — they will call down to earth, and only one city in the world will be named on the radio transmissions.

Houston is the Space City — but what will it take to maintain that moniker? This was a big topic of the Greater Houston Partnership's second annual State of Space event hosted on Tuesday, October 11.

A diverse and impressive panel discussed the Space City's future, the upcoming moon missions, commercializations, and more. If you missed the discussion, check out some key moments from the event.

"Houston has a significant role in all areas of Artemis."

— Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center. "We have crew missions, robotic missions, and other technologies that will make up Artemis."

"The big mission we have is for Houston to remain the hub in human space flight moving forward."

— Wyche says, adding "for us to be the nexus and accelerator of research, innovation, and STEM, we need to work together for workforce development for the space economy."

"We're at a point were we can pivot to develop scalable products at a much lower cost — it really reduces the barrier of entry for commercial space partners."

— Peggy Guirgis, general manager of space systems for Collins Aerospace. "We're building in Houston because this is really an engineering hub," she adds, noting the industries and schools here that support the industry.

"Why Houston? Because of, more than anything, the sense of community."

— Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines, noting the support behind building the Houston Spaceport and the existing Johnson Space Center, as well as all the other players within the space sector locally.

"At some point in the very near future we are going to land humans on the moon — the first woman on the moon, the first person of color on the moon — and we're going to say, 'Moon, Houston.' This is the only city in the world that's going to be said on those loops."

— Kate Rubins, NASA astronaut. "I feel very fortunate to be here."

"Right here in Houston — at the HoustonSpaceport, we're building a space where the Space Force can do classified work."

— Altemus says. "That's one area that I'd like to see grow."

"We need to continue to build a talent pipeline as well as generating a workforce that is able to keep pace with the rapidly growing space industry."

— Guirgis says.

"When people think about Houston, NASA has been the nexus and center of gravity, but all of Houston has been a magnet. It's a draw to come and work here."

— Rubins says. "One way to continue this is through infrastructure that's being built here — it's incredible. It's going to cement this as a place that you want to come if you're a commercial company and you want to partner with NASA, or you want to be a contractor for one of these other companies. ... And the startup scene is booming these days in Houston."

"We need to make sure that we have the world-class capabilities."

— Wyche says. "The workforce is so very important."

Here are three of the latest updates on new execs and advisory appointments from two Houston startups and a local venture group. Photo via Getty Images

3 Houston organizations announce strategic appointments across biotech and VC

short stories

Five Houston innovators have new roles they're excited about this spring. From new advisory board members to c-level execs, here's who's moving and shaking in Houston innovation.

The Artemis Fund names new vice president of finance and operations

Adrienne Mangual has a background in finance and consulting. Photo courtesy of Artemis

The Artemis Fund, a venture capital firm that funds female-founded startups with technology solutions in fintech, e-commerce tech, and care-tech, has announced a new member of its leadership.

Adrienne Mangual is the new vice president of finance and operations at the firm, joining Artemis's co-founders and general partners, Stephanie Campbell, Leslie Goldman, and Diana Murakhovskaya, along with Austin-based Juliette Richert, a senior analyst.

Mangual received her MBA from Rice University in 2019 after working 15 years in finance roles at J.P. Morgan and Key Energy Services. Over the past few years, she's worked in consulting positions with startups and technology.

"This is an exciting time to join The Artemis Fund as the fund is growing and our reach is expanding and continuing to make an impact on female founders," Mangual tells InnovationMap. "I am looking forward to supporting existing and future female founders and working with Diana, Stephanie, and Leslie as part of the team making investment decisions for the fund."

FibroBiologics appoints scientific advisory board member

Former astronaut Kate Rubins, who's spent a total of 300 days in space, has joined the a Houston company's scientific advisory board. Photo courtesy of FibroBiologics

Houston-based clinical-stage therapeutics company FibroBiologics announced the appointment of Kathleen “Kate” Rubins, Ph.D., to its scientific advisory board. A microbiologist and NASA astronaut, Rubins has conducted medical research on earth at academic institutions as well as on board the International Space Station.

“We are honored to welcome Dr. Rubins to our SAB,” says Pete O’Heeron, CEO and chairman of FibroBiologics, in a news release. “She has distinguished herself in both terrestrial research at the Salk and Whitehead Institutes and through her ethereal work on the International Space Station.

"It’s rare to have such a unique perspective on microbiology," he continues. "Dr. Rubins joins a board of world-renowned scientists who will help to guide us as we advance fibroblast cell-based therapeutics through preclinical and clinical development. We are the only company focused on this unique opportunity in leveraging fibroblasts as treatments for chronic diseases and Dr. Rubins will be a key advisor in our pursuit to bring relief to the patients.”

In 2016, Rubins completed her first spaceflight on Expedition 48/49, where she became the first person to sequence DNA in space. Most recently, she served on the ISS as a flight engineer for Expedition 63/64. Across her two flights, she has spent a total of 300 days in space, the fourth most days in space by a U.S. female astronaut, according to the release.

Cemvita Factory hires, promotes within its leadership team

Tara Karimi, co-founder and CTO, stands with Cemvita Factory's two new hires and recently promoted employee. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Cemvita Factory has made big moves in its leadership team. The low-carbon biotech and synthetic biology solution provider has recently made three strategic appointments: Charles Nelson was hired as chief business officer, Roger A. Harris was promoted to chief commercial officer, and Alex Juminaga was recruited as head of strain development.

“Scaling to meet market demand requires the right team at the right time,” says Tara Karimi, co-founder and CTO of Cemvita, in a news release. “With Charlie, Roger, and Alex’s leadership, we’re well-positioned for growth at a time when the demand for decarbonization solutions is greater than ever.”

With over 10 years in product development, engineering, and technology commercialization experience, Nelson will oversee all aspects of sales, business development, and customer success.

“At Cemvita, we create sustainable solutions to challenges across heavy industries,” says Nelson in the release. “Our goal is to reinvent heavy industries in ways that speak to the future, reduce companies’ carbon footprints, and even create jobs; I’m delighted to help lead the charge.”

Harris originally joined Cemvita as vice president of technology commercialization a year ago and has over two decades of experience in research and development, and engineering. In his new role, he is responsible for scaling and commercializing the startup's technology.

“Cemvita is positioned incredibly well to support heavy industry in efforts to innovate, and to help oil and gas diversify offerings and reduce dependency on carbon-intensive products,” says Harris in the release. “It is an exciting time and I’m thrilled to be with Cemvita.”

Lastly, Alex Juminaga will lead the Cemvita biofoundry’s production of novel biomolecules. He brings over a decade of laboratory experience — specializing in metabolic engineering, protein expression/purification, enzyme kinetics and binding assays, analytical chemistry, and more.

“The field of synthetic biology is just getting started, with thousands of microbes yet to be discovered,” says Juminaga. “I’m excited to work alongside the brilliant scientists at Cemvita as we uncover new microbiomes and new uses for these tiny treasures.”

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Innovative coastline project on Bolivar Peninsula receives federal funding

flood mitigation

The Galveston’s Coastal Barrier Project recently received federal funding to the tune of $500,000 to support construction on its flood mitigation plans for the area previously devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Known as Ike Dike, the proposed project includes implementing the Galveston Bay Storm Surge Barrier System, including eight Gulf and Bay defense projects. The Bolivar Roads Gate System, a two-mile-long closure structure situated between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, is included in the plans and would protect against storm surge volumes entering the bay.

The funding support comes from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and will go toward the preconstruction engineering and design phase of Ecosystem Restoration feature G-28, the first segment of the Bolivar Peninsula and West Bay Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Shoreline and Island Protection.

Coastal Barrier Project - Galveston Projects

The project also includes protection of critical fish and wildlife habitat against coastal storms and erosion.

“The Coastal Texas Project is one of the largest projects in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” says Col. Rhett A. Blackmon, USACE Galveston District commander, in a statement. “This project is important to the nation for many reasons. Not only will it reduce risk to the vulnerable populations along the Texas coast, but it will also protect vital ecosystems and economically critical infrastructure vital to the U.S. supply chain and the many global industries located here.”

Hurricane Ike resulted in over $30 billion in storm-related damages to the Texas coast, reports the Coastal Barrier Project, and created a debris line 15 feet tall and 40 miles long in Chambers County. The estimated economic disruption due to Hurricane Ike exceeded $150 billion, FEMA reported.

The project is estimated to take two years to complete after construction starts and will cost between $4 billion and $6 billion, reports Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Houston organization selects research on future foods in space health to receive $1M in funding

research and development

What would we eat if we were forced to decamp to another planet? The most immediate challenges faced by the food industry and astronauts exploring outside Earth are being addressed by The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine’s newest project.

Earlier this month, TRISH announced the initial selection for its Space Health Ingress Program (SHIP) solicitation. Working with California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Baylor-based program chose “Future Foods for Space: Mobilizing the Future Foods Community to Accelerate Advances in Space Health,” led by Dr. Denneal Jamison-McClung at the University of California, Davis.

“TRISH is bringing in new ideas and investigators to propel space health research,” says Catherine Domingo, TRISH operations lead and research administration associate at Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. “We have long believed that new researchers with fresh perspectives drive innovation and advance human space exploration and SHIP builds on TRISH’s existing efforts to recruit and support new investigators in the space health research field, potentially yielding and high-impact ideas to protect space explorers.”

The goal of the project is to develop sustainable food products and ingredients that could fuel future space travelers on long-term voyages, or even habitation beyond our home planet.

Jamison-McClung and her team’s goal is to enact food-related space health research and inspire the community thereof by mobilizing academic and food-industry researchers who have not previously engaged with the realm of space exploration. Besides growing and developing food products, the project will also address production, storage, and delivery of the nutrition created by the team.

To that end, Jamison-McClung and her recruits will receive $1 million over the course of two years. The goal of the SHIP solicitation is to work with first-time NASA investigators, bringing new minds to the forefront of the space health research world.

“As we look to enable safer space exploration and habitation for humans, it is clear that food and nutrition are foundational,” says Dr. Asha S. Collins, chair of the SHIP advisory board, in a press release. “We’re excited to see how accelerating innovation in food science for space health could also result in food-related innovations for people on Earth in remote areas and food deserts.”

Clean energy nonprofit CEO to step down, search for replacement to begin

moving on

Greentown Labs, which is co-located in the Boston and Houston areas, has announced its current CEO is stepping down after less than a year in the position.

The nonprofit's CEO and President Kevin Knobloch announced that he will be stepping down at the end of July 2024. Knobloch assumed his role last September, previously serving as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term.

“It has been an honor to lead this incredible team and organization, and a true privilege to get to know many of our brilliant startup founders," Knobloch says in the news release. “Greentown is a proven leader in supporting early-stage climatetech companies and I can’t wait to see all that it will accomplish in the coming years.”

The news of Knobloch's departure comes just over a month after the organization announced that it was eliminating 30 percent of its staff, which affected 12 roles in Boston and six in Houston.

According the Greentown, its board of directors is expected to launch a national search for its next CEO.

“On behalf of the entire Board of Directors, I want to thank Kevin for his efforts to strengthen the foundation of Greentown Labs and for charting the next chapter for the organization through a strategic refresh process,” says Dawn James, Greentown Labs Board Chair, in the release. “His thoughtful leadership will leave a lasting impact on the team and community for years to come.”

Knobloch reportedly shifted Greentown's sponsorship relationships with oil companies, sparking "friction within the organization," according to the Houston Chronicle, which also reported that Knobloch said he intends to return to his clean energy consulting firm.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.