According to a new report, Houston has potential to lead three life science subsectors: cell and gene therapy manufacturing, molecular diagnostics, and biologics drug development and manufacturing. Photo via Getty Images

A new report found that Houston has great potential across a handful of life science subsectors.

The study by Newmark Consulting Group was commissioned by the Greater Houston Partnership and sponsored by San Jacinto College, Lone Star College, Houston Community College, and McCord Development. It looked at the region's existing resources and value proposition in the life sciences sector.

According to the report, Houston is home to industry-leading expertise in three subsectors: cell and gene therapy manufacturing, molecular diagnostics, and biologics drug development and manufacturing.

From a workforce perspective, the city has a steady flow of new talent from regional universities and "an emerging and robust commitment by community colleges to support two-year degree pathways to meet industry demands and the ability for life science companies to grow and thrive in the market," per the report. The findings led to identifying the next steps for the Houston region to capitalize on these advantages.

“The Newmark study confirms what we knew to be true about the potential for life sciences growth in Houston,” says Susan Davenport, GHP's chief economic development officer, in a news release. “The study will help us coalesce our regional partners around a cohesive strategy to grow and expand the industry in Houston.”

The report's other key findings included:

  • Houston consistently ranks as a top-15 market for life sciences employment nationwide and first in Texas with nearly 700 life science companies operating in town.
  • The Bayou City has the densest patient population in the world, which allows for transformational clinical applications.
  • The city's diverse workforce, extensive university ecosystem, education infrastructure, and research institutions sets a scene for Houston to capture extensive subsector gains.
  • Houston ranks second in the nation in clinical trial volume with more than 4,600 currently active clinical trials, which is representing 15 percent of all active U.S. trials.
  • In 2021, Houston-area institutions attracted $864.1 million in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, which is up 16.3 percent from 2020. On average over the past five years, the region received $740.7 million per year in NIH funding for a total of $3.9 billion.
  • Houston is home to more than 26,000 non-healthcare life science employees.
  • The region's life sciences workforce ranks No. 12 in the nation, on par with numbers reported for Research Triangle Park.
In light of the report, the GHP is recommending a few action items, including "accelerating workforce development programs to produce new graduates in key life sciences occupations, refining Houston’s marketing messages to highlight the region’s existing life science assets and activities within life science R&D and manufacturing," per the report. Additionally, the GHP identified the need to develop a shared regional strategy to attract and retain leading life sciences companies.
To lead these initiatives, the GHP has assembled task forces, which will be led by the organization’s Life Sciences Committee, chaired by Ferran Prat, senior vice president of Industry Relations and Research at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Houston — home to the largest medical center — ranks No. 13 on a list of top life science labor markets. Photo via TMC

Here's how Houston ranks as a life science market, according to a new report

by the numbers

For Houston’s life sciences sector, 13 is a very lucky number.

The Houston metro area ranks 13th in CBRE’s first-ever analysis of the country’s top 25 U.S. labor markets for life sciences. Houston’s collective brain power helped cement its place on the list.

The Boston-Cambridge area tops the ranking. Houston is the highest-ranked Texas market, ahead of No. 16 Dallas-Fort Worth and No. 18 Austin.

Dallas-based CBRE, a provider of commercial real estate services, lauds Houston for its “attractive combination” of affordability and a deep pool of Ph.D.-level talent, as well as the presence of major research universities and medical institutions.

Scott Carter, senior vice president of life sciences and healthcare in CBRE’s Houston office, says those factors make Houston “an attractive market for life sciences industry expansion.”

“Houston is projected to lead the nation in population growth over the next five years, which will only strengthen the appeal of its labor market,” Carter says.

Houston boasts the nation’s highest wages in the life sciences sector compared with the cost of living, the analysis shows. Meanwhile, Ph.D. recipients account for 18.5 percent of the 1,300 biological and biomedical sciences degrees granted each year in the Houston area — the highest concentration nationwide. And Houston produces 4.2 percent of such Ph.D. recipients in the U.S. — more than all but a few major life sciences markets do.

“Millions of square feet and billions of dollars of life sciences development is underway or planned in Houston to break down longtime silos between commercial, academic, and medical sectors,” Carter says. “Leveraging the unmatched scale of the Texas Medical Center, these new moon-shot investments are building a launchpad to rocket Space City into a new era as a global hub for scientific and human progress.”

Underscoring the rapid rise of the city’s innovation ecosystem, Houston enjoys one of the country’s fastest-growing pipelines for VC funding in life sciences. Here, VC funding in the sector rose 937 percent in the past five years, compared with the nationwide increase of 345 percent, according to CBRE.

For its analysis, CBRE assessed each market based on several criteria, including its number of life sciences jobs and graduates, its share of the overall job and graduate pool in life sciences, its number of Ph.D. recipients in life sciences, and its concentration of jobs in the broader professional, scientific, and technical services professions.

In 2020, CBRE ranked Houston as the No. 2 emerging hub for life sciences in a report, which factored in size and growth of life-sciences employment, the venture capital and National Institutes of Health funding, and more.

Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Fannin Innovation Studio, says that now is the time to invest in life sciences. Photo via Getty Images

Innovation studio aims to put Houston on the map for life science startup development

fostering innovation

In a report last year from commercial real estate services company JLL, Boston took the crown for hosting the country's top life sciences ecosystem. Houston ranked 11th.

The difference between Houston and Boston "is not the innovation, it's not the technology, it's not the money. It's that we don't have experienced life sciences entrepreneurs," says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio, a for-profit entity that commercializes biotech and medtech concepts.

Fannin has tried to replicate Boston's robust life sciences ecosystem "in a really, really tiny way" via its fellowship program, Varadhachary says. But the reach of the program could be even greater, he believes.

Varadhachary makes a case for tripling or even quadrupling the number of participants in Fannin's federally accredited fellowship program. He says this one relatively small investment could push Houston closer to Boston in the life sciences stratosphere.

Atul Varadhachary is the managing partner of Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio. Photo via fannininnovation.com

To be sure, Houston is no slouch in life sciences. For instance, commercial real estate services company CBRE issued a report last fall ranking Houston second among the country's top emerging clusters for life sciences. But cities like Boston, San Francisco, and San Diego still reign as life sciences royalty in the U.S.

Fannin typically taps five people at a time — folks who've recently earned a master's degree, medical degree or PhD — for a two-year fellowship in life sciences entrepreneurship and commercialization. The initiative is comparable to a post-doctorate program in research or medicine. The Fannin fellows collaborate with therapeutics and medical device companies in the studio's portfolio, gaining hands-on training in facets of business like R&D, intellectual property, regulatory matters, and financing.

Today, five fellows and seven interns work at Fannin. The fellowship program launched in 2006; the internship program started a year earlier. In all, Fannin has welcomed more than 250 fellows and interns. Some of them have gone on to work at Houston organizations such as TMC Innovation, MD Anderson Cancer Center, and the University of Houston.

Varadhachary believes boosting the fellowship headcount to perhaps 15 instead of the current five would be a small price to pay to help elevate Houston's status in life sciences. The full cost of each fellowship is less than $100,000 a year, so bringing aboard another 10 fellows would require an extra annual commitment of under $1 million. That kind of money isn't in Fannin's budget, though.

"I can think of nothing that could give a bigger return on investment for the city," Varadhachary says of expanding Fannin's fellowship program.

More fellows would mean more entrepreneurs equipped to run or start life sciences businesses in Houston, he says. Varadhachary acknowledges the value of efforts like the soon-to-open TMC3 life sciences hub and the recently opened Ion entrepreneurship hub, but he'd like to see more emphasis placed on nurturing people and not just startups.

Varadhachary says the "the one single thing" that Houston could do to increase its probability of success in life sciences, particularly in therapeutics, would be to crank up cultivation of entrepreneurial talent.

"By and large, I don't think know that this community appreciates how important and how under-resourced that whole people-development piece is," he says. "It's not something that comes from taking classes or watching. It comes from doing."

Andrea Letkeman, director of professional development at Fannin, says the fellows initially work one-on-one with a senior executive on projects, then eventually graduate to running their own projects. Fellows also get a close-up look at other projects underway at Fannin.

Varadhachary wants to get Fannin fellows excited "about what we're doing in Houston, and then give them an opportunity to be part of our ecosystem."

Some Fannin fellows have been hired on a full-time basis by the studio, or they've moved into jobs at venture capital firms, life sciences startups, or other players in the ecosystem, according to Letkeman. She says the fellows lend "energy and vibrancy" to Fannin.

"I think that the Fannin model is fairly unique for Houston. There are models that are similar, across the country, to what we do. But there's not enough of them, quite frankly, for the number of people that are interested in these kinds of roles," Letkeman says.

"There is talent that is looking for a way to bridge the gap between academia and real-world commercialization," she adds. "There's just not enough opportunities out there for them."

Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, say his company transform from uncertainty to almost uncontrollable growth in just 12 months. He shares what happened on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Proxima

Houston health tech company bounces back from COVID-19 in a big way

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 82

The pandemic hit life science innovation hard. And no one knows that better than Kevin Coker, co-founder and CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, a Houston-based contract research organization focused on supporting life science startups as they grow and scale.

"Last year from January to June, it was very tough," Coker says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Hospitals shut down, so any existing projects we had ongoing just halted."

Coker and his team of 12 — including co-founder and chairman, Larry Lawson — at the time didn't have any new projects coming in and were at the mercy of the pandemic.

"Everything was flat. In May, I was starting to worry. I didn't know how long we were going to have to weather the storm," Coker remembers.

Then, in June, things started changing, he says. As hospitals started to reopen and clinical research was reignited. Initially, some COVID diagnostic products were gaining momentum, as well as some emergency use authorization products.

"Things just really started taking off for us," Coker says. "I think it was really a product of investors and people being able to make decisions despite the pandemic."

Coker describes the experience not as a rollercoaster — it was all downhill for Proxima and then business took flight. Last quarter, the company was signing a new contract every two to three days. With the influx of projects, Coker says his team scaled to 50 full time employees and 75 part time team members — most of these new additions Coker hasn't even met yet, since the staff has been working remotely.

"We're a good barometer for what's happening not only locally but across the country," Coker says. "As Proxima has grown, it's really show how the Houston life science market is growing."

Now, Coker is focused on maintaining the company culture at Proxima as well as finding a new, larger office space in the Texas Medical Center — Proxima's current office is in the TMC Innovation Institute.

Coker says it's his intention to keep its operations smaller and more hands on than the usual CRO, which typically has 5,000 to 10,000 employees and multi-billion dollars in revenue, and focused on startups and small companies.

"That type of organization doesn't work well with a small med device or pharmaceutical company. We wanted to create a company that looked and felt like the startups," he says.

Coker shares more about Proxima's growth and Houston's potential of being a major life science hub on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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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.