Four Houston startups have received over $40 million in funding from a Texas organization. Photo via Getty Images

Four Houston bioscience startups have collected nearly $43 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

Here’s a list of the four startups, the amount and purpose of each grant, and some background information about each company.

Stingray Therapeutics

CPRIT grant amount: $13,881,458

Purpose of grant: Clinical trial to evaluate an immunotherapy known as SR-8541A for treatment of advanced or metastatic solid tumors.

Company background: Stingray received a $2 million Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award in 2022. In conjunction with the award, Mohan Kaadige, a research associate professor at the Translational Genomics Research Institute, joined Stringray as the principal SR-8541A investigator.

“I … believe we have great potential to alleviate cancer suffering in the near future with this exciting technology,” says Kaadige.

March Biosciences

CPRIT grant amount: $13,358,637

Purpose of grant: Clinical trial to evaluate a T-cell immunotherapy (MB-105) for treatment of certain types of relapsed lymphoma.

Company background: March Biosciences, a Baylor College of Medicine spinout, recently received $4.8 million in funding from Cancer Focus Fund, affiliated with Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“The breadth and quality of the support we are receiving from our local partners and institutions underscore Houston’s increasing prominence as a worldwide leader in cancer R&D and clinical research,” says Sarah Hein, co-founder and CEO of March Biosciences.

Mongoose Bio

CPRIT grant amount: $10,621,053

Purpose of grant: Development of T-cell therapies targeting solid-tumor cancer.

Company background: Mongoose founder Cassian Lee, a professor and researcher at MD Anderson, is a CPRIT scholar and a participant in Texas Medical Center Innovation’s 2023 Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics.

“Mongoose Bio is a first-rate example of the use of CPRIT funds to fund a disruptive cell gene therapy … therapeutic with deep roots and origins in Texas. This innovation will benefit patients with solid tumors not just in Texas but the rest of the world,” says CPRIT.

FixNip

CPRIT grant amount: $4,844,088

Purpose of grant: Clinical study and manufacturing of a silicone implant that creates a soft, natural-looking nipple for women with breast cancer who’ve undergone post-mastectomy breast reconstruction. The clinical study will be done at MD Anderson.

Company background: In conjunction with the CPRIT grant, FixNip is moving its headquarters from Israel to Houston. Austin-based CPRIT became aware of FixNip during a May 2022 trade trip to Israel by the organization’s CEO, Wayne Roberts.

“Loss of nipple projection is the most pervasive problem across all currently existing nipple reconstruction solutions,” says FixNip.

Aside from the grants for the four Houston startups, CPRIT handed out two grants for recruitment of two cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $6 million grant to recruit Dr. Leonido Luznik of Johns Hopkins University to the Baylor College of Medicine. Luznik’s research focuses on allogeneic blood and marrow transplantation (alloBMT), a treatment for blood cancers.
  • $1.99 million grant to recruit Swiss researcher Christina Tringides to Rice University. Tringides is working on a “groundbreaking” treatment for brain tumors, says CPRIT.
This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sarah Hein of March Biosciences, Sean Kelly of Amperon, Donnell Debnam Jr. of the Google in Residence program, and the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards judges. Photos courtesy

3+ Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries, from biotech to energy software, recently making headlines in Houston innovation — plus the decision makers for the Houston Innovation Awards.

Sarah Hein, CEO and co-founder of March Biosciences

Early-stage cell therapy startup March Biosciences has partnered with CTMC. Photo via march.bio

Named in part after one of the best months out of the year for Houstonians, March Biosciences has entered into a uniquely Houston partnership. Sarah Hein, CEO and co-founder of the cancer immunotherapy startup, met her co-founders at the TMC Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics.

“It's a perfect example of the opportunities here in Houston where you can go from bench to bedside, essentially, in the same institution. And Baylor has been particularly good at that because of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy,” says Hein.

The company recently announced a partnership with another Houston institution, CTMC. Read more.

Sean Kelly, CEO and co-founder of Amperon

It's payday for a startup that's improving analytics for its energy customers. Photo via Getty Images

Amperon Holdings Inc. raised $20 million in its latest round of funding in order to accelerate its energy analytics and grid decarbonization technology.

The fresh funding will support the company in evolving its platform that conducts electricity demand forecasting to a comprehensive data analytics solution.

“The energy transition is creating unprecedented market volatility, and Amperon is uniquely positioned to help market participants better navigate the transitioning grid – both in the U.S. and as we expand globally,” Sean Kelly, CEO and co-founder of Amperon, says. Read more.

Donnell Debnam Jr., instructor in the Google in Residence program

Thanks to Google, Donnell Debnam Jr. is helping train future software engineers at Prairie View A&M University. Photo via LinkedIn

Computer science students at Prairie View A&M University are gaining firsthand knowledge this semester from a Google software engineer.

As an instructor in the Google in Residence program, Donnell Debnam Jr. is helping train future software engineers — and other potential tech professionals — who are enrolled this fall in Prairie View A&M’s introductory computer science course. Fifty-four students are taking the class.

“I participated in the Google in Residence program as a student, and I am honored to return as an instructor,” says Debnam. “This innovative program was created to support greater diversity in the tech industry, and as an instructor, I have the privilege of helping the next generation of software engineers create a more inclusive culture within the STEM fields.” Read more.

2023 Houston Innovation Awards judges

Bonus innovators to know: The 10 Houstonians deciding the finalists and winners for this year's Houston Innovation Awards. Photos courtesy

Ten Houstonians are in the hot seat for deciding the best companies and individuals in Houston's innovation ecosystem.

InnovationMap has announced its 2023 Houston Innovation Awards judging panel, which includes startup founders, nonprofit leaders, investors, corporate innovators, and more.

Meet the 10 selected judges who will evaluate applications from the nearly 400 nominations that were submitted this year. Read more.

Early-stage cell therapy startup March Biosciences has partnered with CTMC. Photo via march.bio

Cancer-fighting startup partners with Houston cell therapy accelerator

marching on

When it came time to name their cell therapy startup, Houston life science innovators simply had to look to their calendar.

“I would argue that March is the best month in Houston,” Sarah Hein tells InnovationMap. “We started talking about putting this company together during COVID, so we were outside a lot. And we actually got together in March.”

That’s why the CEO and her co-founders Max Mamonkin and Malcolm Brenner decided to name their company March Biosciences.

It's a fresh, unstuffy name for a startup that has an innovative take on cancer immunotherapy. Their lead asset is an advanced cellular therapy known as MB-105, an autologous CD5 CAR T cell therapy. For patients with T-cell lymphoma and leukemia who have failed all currently available lines of therapy, the prognosis is understandably extremely poor. But in a phase one study, MB-105 has been proven to safely treat those patients. The phase two study is expected to begin in the first half of 2024.

Hein met Mamonkin at the TMC Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics (ACT), at which the alumna of Resonant Therapeutics and Courier Therapeutics was an entrepreneur in residence.

“It's a perfect example of the opportunities here in Houston where you can go from bench to bedside, essentially, in the same institution. And Baylor has been particularly good at that because of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy,” says Hein.

The serial entrepreneur first came to Houston as a PhD student in molecular and cellular biology at Baylor College of Medicine, but during her studies she became excited by the startup ecosystem in her new hometown. After earning her degree, she became a venture fellow at the Mercury Fund. Her experience in both science and business made her an ideal candidate to take March Biosciences to the next level.

In September, the company announced that it formed a strategic alliance with CTMC (Cell Therapy Manufacturing Center), a joint venture between MD Anderson Cancer Center and National Resilience.

“Our unique risk-sharing model allows us to collaborate with organizations like March Biosciences to accelerate the development and manufacture of innovative cell therapies, like MB-105, and bring them into the clinic with a consistent and scalable manufacturing process,” said CTMC’s CEO, Jason Bock in a press release.

The partnership “has allowed us to move really quickly,” Hein says.

That’s because what CTMC does uniquely well is take early stage companies like March Biosciences and advance them to a state that’s ready for manufacturing in a short time, around 18 months, says Hein.

According to Hein, March Biosciences’ success is a testament to Houston and its world-class medical center.

“It’s a great example of the opportunities you see here in Houston, where we have a technology that was developed by brilliant scientists here in Houston and we can pull together the resources that we need to take it to the next level,” Hein says. "Working with partners here in Houston, we have all the pieces and the community rises to the occasion to support you.”

The Texas Medical Center's ACT program is making sure the most-promising cancer research makes it to its life-saving commercialization stage. Photo via tmc.edu

Houston program buoys promising cancer research with live-saving innovation

act-ing now

How do you bring promising cancer research to the masses? TMC Innovation's Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics was established with that question in mind.

Funded by a $5 million grant from CPRIT, or the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, in 2019 and in collaboration with the Gulf Coast Consortia and the University of Texas Medical Branch, the first cohort began their intensive work in 2021. The deadline to join the next cohort is October 13.

Since its inception, ACT has seen the forming of 19 companies — two of which have been awarded CPRIT seed grants, along with four in contention for one this year — as well as $92 million in dilutive funding and $10 million in non-dilutive funding.

“We’ve recruited investigators and companies from the breadth and width of the state of Texas, so all the way from Lubbock to Galveston from Dallas to the Rio Grande Valley,” Ahmed AlRawi, program manager, tells InnovationMap. “We've had an amazing set of investigators who have gone through the program — 56 teams to be precise.”

AlRawi says that the first pillar of the program is education. To that end, the cohort works with entrepreneurs in residence like Michael Torres. Best known as the co-founder of ReCode Therapeutics, Torres says that one of his greatest passions lies in translating science into medicines. ReCode is a genetic medicines company that is currently clinical-stage. It’s raised more than $300 million in the last two years, certainly something to which scientist-entrepreneurs earlier in their careers would aspire.

A longtime resident of Dallas, Torres moved his family to Houston last year, calling it “the place to be for cancer startups in Texas.”

Initially, says Torres, Houston wasn’t on his radar. But thanks to a call from ACT external advisor Dan Hargrove, Torres realized that the city might be a fit for him and his goals.

“I wanted to find a project that I could help support, sort of take my experience as a cofounder and help guide the next great startup within the ecosystem,” he says.

Torres and AlRawi agree that the biggest successes to come out of ACT so far include March Biosciences, a company from the first cohort, which is focused on developing CAR-T cell strategies to help combat hematological cancers; CPRIT fundee, OmniNano Pharmaceuticals, which uses patented nanotechnology to co-deliver a pair of therapeutical agents to solid tumors; and the latest, CrossBridge Bio.

Part of the most recent cohort, Torres has joined Drs. Kyoji Tsuchikama and Zhiqiang An as the last company’s CEO. To that end, he’s partnered with the world-class researchers out of UT Health Houston to build a next-generation antibody drug conjugate company that he believes will produce “better and safer and more effective drugs than what's currently on the market today.”

All the more reason that Torres he’s glad to have moved to Houston at what he calls “a really exciting time.” He’s thankful for the Texas Medical Center and the relationships it fosters. “We're all sort of aligning on creating a sustainable biotech ecosystem,” he says. And the next big cancer fighting company may well emerge from ACT.

Eight of the 10 most-promising life science startups named at BioHouston and the Rice Alliance's event are based in Houston. Photo courtesy of Rice Alliance

Houston startups named most promising in the life science space at annual event

ones to watch

For the second time this year, Houston life science leaders and startup founders gathered to discuss the future of health care in Houston.

The annual Texas Life Science Forum hosted by BioHouston and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship was usually held during the fall before the pandemic pushed it off schedule. In February, the two organizations hosted the previous forum, but as of this month, the annual event is back on track.

The day included panels and networking, plus over 50 companies — about half of which are based in Houston — pitched their solutions across medical device, therapeutics, pharmaceuticals, and more to the crowd.

Houston-based Bairitone Health won the Michael E. DeBakey Memorial Life Science Award, established by BioHouston in honor of the groundbreaking Houston cardiovascular surgeon. The company is creating a wearable technology that takes a more innovative approach to sleep apnea and snoring with its SOMNAR platform that detects tissue-born sounds, identifies obstructions, and more. The award was presented by Ann Tanabe, CEO of BioHouston.

Ann Tanabe, CEO of BioHouston, presented the DeBakey Award to Houston-based Bairitone Health. Photo courtesy of Rice Alliance

For the first time, the event also named a people's choice award winner, as voted on by the audience members. Baritone Health also claimed the prize.

At the conclusion of the event, the Rice Alliance and BioHouston named the 10 most promising life science companies selected by investors and presented by the Greater Houston Partnership. This year's selection included the following companies, in alphabetical order.

Autonomize

Austin-based Autonomizeunlocks data and context to enable human health outcomes

bEHR Health Systems

New Orleans-based bEHR Health Systemsdelivers, medical, lifestyle, and social solutions to health for African Americans.

EMPIRI

EMPIRI, based in Houston, is revolutionizing cancer care with a novel technology that accurately predicts each cancer patient's treatment responses empirically, enabling doctors to make the optimal treatment selection for each cancer patient.

InformAI

Houston-based InformAI develops AI-based medical image diagnostic tools and uses large dataset synthesis to develop clinical outcome predictors for physicians, hospitals, and medical imaging/medical device companies

March Biosciences 

Houston-based March Biosciences is impacting the most challenging lymphoma and leukemia.

MRG Health-SmartCare360

MRG Health-SmartCare360, based in Houston, is a determinate of health and disease specific virtual care management technology and services company that improves patient access to care and clinical outcomes for people suffering from one or more chronic disease.

Prana Thoracic

Prana Thoracic, founded in Houston out of JLABS at TMC, is a medical device startup that's innovating for the future of early intervention in lung cancer.

Steradian Technologies

Another med device startup based in Houston,Steradian Technologiesemploys deep-photonics technology to diagnose respiratory diseases in seconds, all for the price of a latte.

TYBR Health

Houston-based TYBR Health makes a hydrogel that protects tendons from scarring after surgery and improves patient outcomes.

Voythos

Voythos, based in Houston, is making medical records work for today's healthcare.

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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.