Houston-based Proxima Clinical Research has expanded its footprint thanks to a recent partnership. Image via proximacro.com

Houston-based Proxima Clinical Research announced this month that it will expand its clinical trial offerings by adding NEXT Oncology to its Early Phase Oncology Network, or EPON.

NEXT Oncology is a Phase I clinical trial treatment center with locations in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Virginia, as well as international locations in Barcelona and Madrid. These centers provide innovative and investigational treatments and therapies to patients with advanced forms of cancers.

The addition of NEXT Oncology's clinics brings Proxima's oncology network up to 14 physical locations and eight clinical practices, Robbin Frnka, executive director of clinical development and strategy at Proxima CRO tells InnovationMap.

“Early phase oncology trials are some of the most delicate and important trials to conduct, both from a science perspective and in offering hope for late-stage patients,” Dr. Anthony Tolcher, CEO and founder of NEXT Oncology, says in a statement. “We proudly designed NEXT Oncology specifically to bring the best new agents to patients through our specially designed centers located around the world. This new relationship with Proxima CRO’s EPON will help us further enhance our mission and contribute to our life’s work of advancing cancer treatments to save more lives from cancer around the world.”

Proxima is a Houston-based contract research organization focused on supporting life science startups as they grow and scale. It was recently named to the the Inc. 5000 regional rankings for the Southwest for its fast-growing revenue.

The company launched its EPON in March to support Phase I and Phase II clinical oncology trials and a group of oncology-specific scientific experts. The Mary Crowley Cancer Research, a specialized clinical research center in Dallas, was one of the first to join the network.

"Finding the right clinical sites and investigators with the right patients is one of the biggest struggles of early phase clinical trials," Frnka says in a March statement. "Our Early Phase Oncology Network, which we're calling EPON, includes some of the most prominent investigators in early phase trials. Receiving expert feedback, insight, and guidance from this skilled scientific panel is critical to the success of these earliest phase trials."

In addition to work in the cancer field, Proxima also launched its M1 MedTech accelerator last year aimed at helping startups quickly grow their health tech businesses. Its inaugural cohort included startups with new tech and treatments for heart arrhythmias, ultrasounds, bioelectric implants in the body and more.

The company also recently expanded its footprint within the Texas Medical Center Innovation Factory.

InnovationMap spoke with Proxima CEO and Co-founder Kevin Coker on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

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.

          From research and venture capital funding to startup growth and accelerator applications opened, here's what you need to know in Houston innovation news. Photo via Getty Images

          Houston beauty startup raises $1M, medtech accelerator opens apps, and more local innovation news

          short stories

          The month of May has started strong with Houston innovation news, and there might be some headlines you might have missed.

          In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, local universities share big moves in cybersecurity and plant research, a Houston entrepreneur raises extra seed funding, and more.

          Houston medical technology accelerator opens applications

          This medtech startup accelerator has applications open. Graphic via proximacro.com

          M1 MedTech, Proxima Clinical Research's medical technology accelerator is accepting applications for its fall cohort. The program is seeking five to seven early-stage medical device companies for the three-month program. The cohort companies will have investment opportunities up to $100,000 as a combination of both cash and in-kind services.

          “Our program is unique in that it combines acceleration capital, company building expertise, and the regulatory and clinical services of a top CRO,” says Larry Lawson, a venture partner and investor with M1, in the news release. “Access to the M1 founders’ network, both within and outside of the Texas Medical Center, sets these companies up for success. There’s no better group to build a MedTech company with, period.”

          M1 MedTech, which was announced last year, was created to support early-stage medical device companies with a unique coaching process that will include a curated educational program, interactive workshops where participants can continually build out specific company deliverables, and tailored one-on-one mentoring.

          “Many MedTech companies are launched by innovative first-time founders with strong scientific and medical expertise, but who have never taken a regulated product to market or built a business. After working with so many companies at various stages of this journey to market, both with Proxima CRO and with accelerators from across the country, we realized there was a gap that needed to be filled for these rising founders. They not only need regulatory and clinical assistance from experts with hundreds of success stories in this field, we found they also need assistance with design, manufacturing, business, IP, and so much more,” says Isabella Schmitt, RAC, Director of Regulatory Affairs for Proxima CRO and Principle at M1. “These rising founders need to know what they don’t know; so, we put a lot of thought into what emerging companies and rising executives really need, and from that, we built the M1 curriculum.”

          Applications will remain open until May 31. To apply for the Fall 2022 cohort or to learn more about M1 MedTech, visit m1medtech.com.

          Houston entrepreneur adds $1M to seed round

          Houston-based Upgrade has raised additional seed funding. Photo via LinkedIn

          Houston-based Upgrade Boutique — which uses technology to connect women with high-quality wigs and hair extensions — extended its seed round by $1 million, Fast Company reported. The round's initial seed leaders included Houston-based venture capital firms Artemis Fund and Mercury Fund, as well as Logitech president and CEO Bracken P. Darrell and ANIM.

          “This [investment] will enable us to scale even faster and continue to invest in tools and resources that will improve the consumer experience, and help stylists operate more efficiently,” Winters tells Fast Company. “Based on feedback from the stylists on our platform, we see this as a natural development in the company’s evolution.”

          University of Houston joins cybersecurity initiative

          UH joins group that's advancing cybersecurity. Image via Getty Images

          The University of Houston has joined a consortium that's funded by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to launch a virtual institute that will recruit and train the next cybersecurity generation that will protect entities from cyber warfare, cyber espionage, and attacks on the electromagnetic spectrum.

          The virtual institute is called VICEROY — Virtual Institutes for Cyber and Electromagnetic Spectrum Research and Employ — DECREE and will be led by Northeastern University and offered across five universities, including UH, Northern Arizona University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of South Carolina.

          “The VICEROY DECREE virtual institute consortium model is transformational. It brings together the best offerings from multiple institutions to meet the workforce training needs in these domains," says Hanadi Rifai, Moores Professor of civil and environmental engineering and UH team lead on the project, in the news release.

          One major focus for the program is the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes radio waves, and is a critical enabler for communications, navigation, radar, training and other military operations. The DoD has been seeking to hire more than 8,000 cyber workers to help defend the virtual space.

          "We recognize the importance and need for workforce training in cybersecurity, electromagnetism, cryptography and data science. These are areas of specific focus and expertise on our campus,” says Paula Myrick Short, UH senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, in the release.

          The two-year program starts in fall 2022 and is funded by a $1.5 million award from the Griffiss Institute, a nonprofit talent and technology accelerator for DoD and its academic, government, and industry partners around the world.

          Local composting company moves into new Houston space and expands to Austin

          Moonshot has expanded locally and statewide. Photo courtesy of Moonshot

          Houston-based Moonshot Composting has announced its relocation to a 8,225-square-foot space in Northside Village at 1410 Bigelow St. The former Yellow Cab outpost is over five times the size of the originally location.

          Additionally, this month Moonshot will open its doors in the greater Austin area with a facility in Creedmoor, just south of Austin. Moonshot's first commercial customer was Austin-headquartered Tacodeli.

          The company has grown its business to nearly 500 subscribers, including 40 commercials accounts, as well as seven full-time and four part-time employees. Moonshot is diverting 30,000 pounds of food waste a week, with a total of nearly 1,000,000 pounds diverted since July 2020, per a news release.

          “We are excited about our growth and all the individuals and companies getting on board to get food waste out of landfills and onto composting sites,” says Chris Wood, Moonshot principal and co-founder, in the release. “Our new space will make for more efficient operations all around.”

          Moonshot Composting's commercial subscribers include Rice University, Houston Baptist University, The Awty International School, ConocoPhillips, Snooze Eatery, Ostia, and Amli Residential.

          Rice University biologist wins NIH award

          This Rice University scientist has received national recognition for her work plant cell analysis. Photo courtesy of Rice

          A Rice University postdoctoral fellow and molecular and cell biologist has received a prestigious National Institutes of Health award.

          Durre Muhammad of Rice Academy won the MOSAIC (Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers) K99/R00 award, which is intended to help postdoctoral researchers transition into careers while enhancing diversity within the academic biomedical research workforce, according to a news release from Rice. She's only the fourth individual from Rice to receive this recognition.

          The first two years of the award will support the biologist's work in Bonnie Bartel's lab. She is working on defining the mechanisms by which cells in plants identify and eliminate damaged or obsolete organelles known as peroxisomes, which also play important roles in human aging.

          “Our lab in general works on all things peroxisome, and I mainly focus on the latter stage when it’s ready for degradation,” Muhammad says in the release. “We identify the signals and different mechanisms involved in the process of decay.”

          Muhammad joined Rice in 2018. She earned her Ph.D. in plant and microbial biology at North Carolina State University and her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from the University of Illinois Chicago. She also has her MBA from Benedictine University. She received an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship in Biology in 2019.

          “Durre is a fantastic scientist who has brought new perspectives and approaches to my lab,” says Bartel, the Ralph and Dorothy Looney Professor of BioSciences. “We are delighted that NIH has recognized her accomplishments and potential with this award.”

          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.”

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          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.