James Reinstein joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss what's next for growing medical device company, Saranas. Photo courtesy

When James Reinstein took the helm of Houston-based Saranas in March 2020, he was tasked with taking the medical device company through its series B funding round and into larger clinical trials. Navigating these tasks during a global pandemic wasn't part of the plan.

"There was just so much uncertainty," Reinstein says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "All of the funds didn't know which end was up, what hospitals would be doing, what procedures were going to begin again."

Saranas received FDA approval and began its clinical trials for its Early Bird Bleed Monitoring System in 2019. The device is designed to detect and track bleeding complications related to endovascular procedures. These medical procedures treat problems, such as aneurysms, that affect blood vessels. Around 20 percent of patients suffer a bleeding complication during endovascular procedures.

Reinstein explains that the way health tech funding trended over the past 18 months greatly affected Saranas. The device fell outside the parameters of what investors were looking for during this pandemic time. However, Reinstein explains, the Early Bird worked and had FDA approval — that made all the difference.

"We are very confident that the product does work and it can have a significant impact for hospitals and patients," Reinstein says. "Eventually, the term sheets came in."

Saranas announced in July that it closed a $12.8 million series B investment led by Wisconsin-based Baird Capital, the venture capital and global private equity arm of Baird, a global company with a location in Houston. Austin-based S3 Ventures also supported the round.

The funds will propel Saranas into its next phase, which includes growing its team, larger trials, and a next-generation product.

Reinstein has had decades in health care innovation all over the world, with a large chunk of his career at Boston Scientific. He's seen Houston's innovation ecosystem evolve.

"I do think that there's a great potential for Houston to really develop the industry," Reinstein says. "There's just two areas that need to get fortified. One is the funding and getting the funds directed to Houston companies — with the idea that the company stays in Houston. ... The other side of the coin is really finding the talent to come in and run the companies, take on leadership positions."

Reinstein shares more details on what's next for Saranas, as well as his advice for med tech entrepreneurs and observations on Houston's innovation ecosystem on the show. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Rice University bioengineers are designing a vascularized, insulin-producing implant for Type 1 diabetes. Photo by Jeff Fitlow courtesy of Rice University

Rice University bioengineers create insulin-producing medical device

health tech

A team of bioengineers at Houston's own Rice University have created an implant that can produce insulin for Type 1 diabetics. The device is being created by using 3D printing and smart biomaterials.

Omid Veiseh, an assistant professor of bioengineering, and Jordan Miller, associate professor of bioengineering, have been working on the project for three years and have received support from JDRF by way of a grant. Veiseh has a decade of experience developing biomaterials that protect implanted cell therapies from the immune system an Miller has spent more than 15 years specializing in 3D print tissues with vasculature, or networks of blood vessels.

"If we really want to recapitulate what the pancreas normally does, we need vasculature," Veiseh says in a news release. "And that's the purpose of this grant with JDRF. The pancreas naturally has all these blood vessels, and cells are organized in particular ways in the pancreas. Jordan and I want to print in the same orientation that exists in nature."

The challenge with Type 1 diabetes is balancing insulin intake, and studies estimate that less than a third of Type 1 diabetics in the U.S. are able to achieve target blood glucose levels consistently. Veiseh and Miller are working toward demonstrating that their implants can properly regulate blood glucose levels of diabetic mice for at least six months. To do that, they'll need to give their engineered beta cells the ability to respond to rapid changes in blood sugar levels.

"We must get implanted cells in close proximity to the bloodstream so beta cells can sense and respond quickly to changes in blood glucose," Miller says, adding that the insulin-producing cells should be no more than 100 microns from a blood vessel. "We're using a combination of pre-vascularization through advanced 3D bioprinting and host-mediated vascular remodeling to give each implant several shots at host integration."

Another challenge these experts are facing is a potential delay that can happen if the implant is too slow to respond to high or low blood sugar levels.

"Addressing that delay is a huge problem in this field," Veiseh says. "When you give the mouse — and ultimately a human — a glucose challenge that mimics eating a meal, how long does it take that information to reach our cells, and how quickly does the insulin come out?"

By incorporating blood vessels in their implant, he and Miller hope to allow their beta-cell tissues to behave in a way that more closely mimics the natural behavior of the pancreas.

Larry Lawson joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about his startup's recent exit, his role on the boards of five med device companies, his investment activity, and more. Photo courtesy of Larry Lawson

Fresh off a $1.4B exit, this Houston innovator is focused on funding medical device tech

Q&A

Earlier this year, Houston-based serial entrepreneur Larry Lawson celebrated the exit of his medical device company, Preventice Solutions, which he sold to Boston ScientificBoston Scientific in a $1.4 billion deal.

Nowadays, Lawson is laser focused on investing in the Houston innovation ecosystem, particularly in medical device, as well as working on Proxima Clinical Research, a contract research organization in the Texas Medical Center he co-founded with Kevin Coker.

Lawson joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about the exit, his role on the boards of five med device companies, and his investment activity. He also shares how he sees the impact of COVID-19 and where Houston's burgeoning innovation ecosystem is headed.

InnovationMap: Earlier this year you saw an exit for your company Preventice Solutions, a company focused on the development of mobile health solutions and remote monitoring, which was sold to Boston Scientific in a $1.4 billion deal. What did this deal mean to both you and the company?

Larry Lawson: It validated what I started back in 2004. I had an idea, And I moved forward on my idea — in the beginning completely financed that idea myself. I tried to raise funds, and it was very difficult here in Houston back in 2004 to do that. I put my money, you might say, where my mouth was and I started the company and funded it and built it to a point to where we attracted some venture capital from one of the world's largest VC groups out of California called Sequoia Capital. That allowed me to really increase our exposure and our footprint nationally. And it just grew and grew and eventually Boston scientific got interested in the company, along with Merck, a pharmaceutical company, and they bought smaller pieces of the company.

Then at the end of the year of 2020, Boston Scientific made a play to acquire the company completely. Frankly, it have been better. I would have never dreamt that my original company would be worth that much and sell for that much. So it was very nice for not only me, but for many other people that were employed by Preventice, because as a founder of the company, I knew how important it was to share equity with the people that really make the company run and make it run well.

IM: I noticed that you’re on the board of several Houston health tech startups — most of which I’ve covered on InnovationMap. What do you look for in a company before joining the board and what role do you play for the companies’ growth?

LL: First of all, I look at the people who are in the company — from top level executive level all the way down, even including the existing board members of the company. I only invest in medical device companies. That's what I know, and that's why I've spent over 50 years in, and I feel like I know it very well. I do not venture far off of that line or that path at all.

I look for a strong operating group. I look for strong leadership — and if I can bring even stronger leadership and have them get from point A to point B, I like to get involved. Given my medical as the chairman of the company.

IM: You started your investment firm in 2018 — what inspired you to create LAWALA Capital and what do you look for in potential portfolio companies?

LL: I really limit my investments to the medical device segment of health care. LAWALA is just me — it's the first two letters of all three of my names: Larry Wayne Lawson. How I got into investing and starting companies is I see opportunity, and I see voids in the industry.

IM: Speaking of, you founded Proxima Clinical Research in 2017, which has a very hands-on approach to accelerating health tech innovation. Why did you decide to start that up?

LL: I saw a void in the clinical research industry, specifically at the medical center here, the largest medical center on the face of the earth. And it was doing all of this attracting all of these companies, all of these health science companies into Houston, and they were building and budding their companies, but there was no centralized clinical research company to be there for them.

I thought, "my gosh, somebody ought to do this." Well, I'm a doer. So, I went to the powers to be at the medical center and got their approval to be the founder of a company, called Proxima Clinical Research, and the key is putting it right there in the heart of the largest medical center in the world.

It's been really, really good for these companies who are coming into Houston to take advantage of the life science growth that's taking place here in Houston.

IM: How did COVID-19 affect the work that you do?

LL: COVID really did not affect our business that greatly. It affected the investments that I was doing. I pulled back and cut my, expenses and that, because I just needed to see, you know, how the COVID thing would shake out. I'm watching my investments a lot closer today, and think that it's affected the startup companies, more because to be a startup company, you have to go out and find investors to invest in your company. And I think that process has been slowed, I won't say considerably, but I think it's been slowed quite a bit over the past year and a half.

It just so happens that in the industry that I've been in, which is patient monitoring — cardiac arrhythmia monitoring — COVID has heightened patient monitoring more than anything else. What we learned from COVID is that we've got to be more in tune ourselves than ever before in monitoring all aspects of ourselves. What has come out of this COVID pandemic is telemedicine, which has struggled for years, now all of a sudden telemedicine is on the tip of everyone's tongue.

And I think that's one reason why you see the big companies — the multinational, multi-billion dollar companies — getting more in patient monitoring.

IM: Houston is home to the largest medical center in the world — but it’s often times not listed as a top city for medical innovation. Is that changing? And if so, how?

LL: When the medical center purchased the old Nabisco building and turned that into a technology center and a startup center, it changed the whole complexion of the device and medical startup community here in Houston. We've had a lot of former development here through MD Anderson in oncology, but we'd never had very much in devices. Now, we have companies coming from Europe and Asia coming to Houston to promote their technology and the devices that they have built.

The Rice Business Plan Competition is the largest in the United States. We fund more startup companies out of RBPC. I'm talking Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley — Houston is number one. And that has a lot to do with what has happened in the medical center over the past seven or eight years.

IM: What more do we need, now that we've come this far to really push us into that innovative healthcare city status?

LL: Well, I think what we need is for investors investing in healthcare and not oil and dirt. For years and years, the whole economy was driven by oil and gas and real estate. And I can remember starting my first company, the early eighties, I went to banks to borrow money to start my first company, and all I wanted was $200,000. Well, that was still a lot of money back then, but they would literally fall asleep on me because they couldn't understand and didn't understand exactly what I wanted to do. And so I wound up having to fund myself use my friends and family as investors, but that's changed quite a bit. The health science community here in Houston is now known all over the world. It's gonna just continue to grow and develop, and I hope to be a part of continue to be a part of it.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Houston-based BioTex works with medical device and health tech companies from all stages, from R&D to commercialization. Photo via biotexmedical.com

Houston medtech company helping to get health care innovations from idea to exit

future of health care

Founding a health tech company is a process unlike any other startup. From the regulatory phase to clinical trials, health tech innovators face a long runway from idea to market, but a Houston-based organization has been working for over 20 years to help make that take-off process run more smoothly.

Ashok Gowda founded BioTex Inc. in 1998, and at the time he was finishing up his PhD at Texas A&M University and wanted a company to support his own health tech ideas, including Visualase Inc. After the real-time tissue monitoring system exited to Medtronic for over $100 million, Gowda realized he can put everything he had learned from taking Visualase from idea to exit and apply it to new medical device innovation.

"Ultimately we built a nice infrastructure by supporting (the Visualase) spin out," Gowda tells InnovationMap. "And we learned a lot about not just product development, but about commercializing and creating a new market that may not exist. And we had some really good, experienced commercial folks we had hired on the Visualase side. I just think it's a good learning lesson that you can't really teach this stuff — you gotta experience it really to understand."

At this point, BioTex has worked with over 40 medical device and health tech companies in some capacity — from early prototyping and research and development to FDA approval, manufacturing, and even distribution. With a staff of around 50 and an 18,000-square-foot facility just south of the Texas Medical Center, BioTex can support around 10 to 15 clients at a time — usually in the medical device sector but across specialties from neurosurgery, cardiology, radiology, urology, gynecology, orthopedics, anesthesia, and more.

BioTex has an 18,000-square-foot facility just south of the Texas Medical Center with R&D space for its clients. Photo via biotexmedical.com

"It's a pretty broad experience, and I think it gives us a good perspective when we talk to a physician or a group of entrepreneurs — we can pretty easily get up to speed or understand the problem because we've usually worked in this space before," Gowda says.

With the infrastructure BioTex has in place, Gowda says he still sees one aspect of health tech development that needs more attention.

"There are obviously a lot of really good ideas here and a lot of push to try to get those ideas to market. But, there are very few of those that have gotten to market and to become commercial products," Gowda says. "It does require a lot of capital to bring medical technology to market — and it usually requires a lot of time as well."

Health tech founders facing the long runway of development usually need enough funds to support them through the process — as well as the know how and support BioTex has.

"We think we solve few of these problems with our in-house expertise, but the one that we are now focused on and trying to solve is the funding gap," Gowda says. "When we see a good idea or a technology, we want to help them get that to market and not let that lack of funding be an impediment."

Ashok Gowda is the president and CEO of BioTex. Photo via biotexmedical.com

A medical device coming out of the Texas Heart Institute has been recognized for its innovation. Photo via THI

Houston innovation team wins global award for painless heart technology

heart of gold

Houston's Texas Heart Institute's pain-free defibrillation technology was named the top future medical product design worldwide last month as part of the annual Create the Future Design contest.

The tiny technology aims to change the way cardiac arrhythmias are managed and remove the often traumatizing pain associated with their treatment. Developed by THI's Electrophysiology Clinical Research & Innovations team in conjunction with scientists at Rice University and UCLA, the technology allows doctors to place up to 12 tiny nodes around the heart to pace and defibrillate the heart without using a shock.

The technology will be most useful for atrial fibrillation and ventricular fibrillation, which can lead to sudden death, stroke, and congestive heart failure, according to Dr. Mehdi Razavi, the head investigator on this project and leader of the THI team. Razavi says winning the award "speaks to the need" of a new solution in the field as the shocks associated with traditional implantable cardioverter-defibrillators, or ICDs, can cause severe PTSD among patients.

"It's extremely painful. It's like someone takes a two by four and just pounds you from the inside in the chest, or a horse kicking you in the chest," Razavi says. He went on to add: "I have actually one patient who was a Vietnam veteran. He said nothing that he faced in battle was as disconcerting—not just because of the pain, but the fact that you don't know when the pain is when the shock is about to happen. That anxiety is just overwhelming."

Instead of shocking the patient's heart in a central location, the nodes spread energy needed to pace the heart at the correct rate throughout the muscle based on their location. This dilutes the feeling of a sudden jolt, and Razavi says, defibrillation using his technology could go unnoticed in patients.

In addition to this game-changing possibility, the new technology is physically safer in many ways, too. The miniaturized battery-less pacing system is free of traditional wires that send electrical pulses to the heart, known as leads. These leads can dislodge and fracture within the body and can cause infection.

The technology's wireless and miniature nature also allows doctors to better access regions of the heart that currently are difficult to reach with bulkier ICDs. Each node can be individually programmed and can stimulate different regions of the heart in different ways, as well.

A cross disciplinary team developed the device. Aydin Babakhani, an associate professor in physical and wave electronics at UCLA first developed the nodes to stimulate electricity for non-medical purposes. Behnaam Aazhang, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Director of the Rice Neuroengineering Initiative, first introduced Razavi to Babakhani, and the trio worked together to bring the technology to the medical arena, along with about 15 to 20 other medical professionals and students.

The team at Rice is continuing to develop the hardware for clinical use. And studies on the use of defibrillation through these nodes across the heart are being conducted out to the Texas Heart Institute's research lab. Razavi and his team are currently conducting preclinical studies on the new form of treatment and aims to roll it out for clinical use in the next three to five years.

Diane Yoo, who was hospitalized due to COVID-19 earlier this year, created a VC fund that's investing in health tech solutions for the disease. Photo courtesy of Medingenii

Houston investor recovers from COVID-19 — then funds startups innovating solutions for the disease

money moves

While so many of Houston's venture capital groups and entrepreneurs have been figuring out the best ways to navigate fundraising amid a pandemic, Diane Yoo managed to close an oversubscribed initial fund and deployed investments into health tech startups during COVID-19 — while also recovering from the disease itself.

Entrepreneur turned investor Diane Yoo launched her health tech-focused venture capital fund, Medingenii Capital, last year, but didn't start fundraising for its initial fund until this year.

Yoo says she and her partners, entrepreneur and investor Greg Campbell, neurologist Dr. Eddie Patton, Dr. Sreedhar Mandayam, and investor Gen Fukunaga, were virtually meeting with over a dozen potential investors weekly and closed the round in under two months.

It was right around closing when Yoo says she caught COVID-19.

"It ravaged every part of my body, and I ended up having to be hospitalized because I couldn't breathe," she says.

Yoo recovered after a month and a half of enduring the disease, only to come out of that experience to fund innovative Houston companies working on COVID-19 solutions. Medingenii focuses on early stage health tech, including genomics, health IT, medical devices, and patient engagement.

"The pandemic has really validated some of the business models we're invested in," she tells InnovationMap.

One example from Medingenii's portfolio is Houston-based medical device company, Vitls. The company's technology includes a wearable device that can monitor vital signs and sync with a smartphone app and sends key information to doctors remotely.

As Yoo thinks back to her COVID-19 treatment, Vitls could have helped her and her fellow patients get out of the crowded hospital wing and home to recover sooner — with the peace of mind of remote care thanks to the device.

"When I was in the ER room, it was overcrowded," Yoo says. "If you were not seriously ill, they would dismiss you because there was just no room. But if you went home with Vitls, you could have sent all your vitals to your doctor from home."

Fueled by a mission to find more health tech solutions like Vitls and with the quick pace of her first fund — Yoo says she's already deployed the capital into Houston-based startups and is looking toward the second fund, which will again focus on Houston startups.

"We really love Houston," Yoo says. "We want to invest a lot of our fund here, and we continue to do that and plan to do that. We see a lot of opportunity in Houston and look forward to working with the innovation ecosystem here."

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University of Houston engineer's research hopes to help detect cancer cells faster and easier

future of health

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

High-tech art exhibit pops up alongside Houston innovation hub

immersive art

A traveling art immersion experience has officially opened its doors in Houston. The tech-enabled show picked a particularly innovative spot, too.

The new "Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Houston," opened Thursday, October 14, at Lighthouse Artspace Houston, a converted, 16,500-square-foot warehouse space (1314 Brittmore Rd.) directly next to The Cannon's West Houston innovation and entrepreneurial hub in The Founders District. The show has sold more than 3 million tickets sold nationwide, the show has outsold Taylor Swift.

Not to be confused with the current Van Gogh interactive offering, this stunning — and original — show animates some of the most iconic works for Van Gogh, who is considered one of humanity's most important and notable artists.

Equally a star player in the production is the music, some by Italian composer Luca Longobardi, along with a classic from Edith Piaf, and even a tune from Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke.

Masterpieces come alive via some 60,600 frames of video, totaling 90,000,000 pixels and more than 500,000 cubic feet of projections. But as anyone who's studied the master's works can attest, that detail is necessary to truly capture his creations.

Giant walls dance with images of workers in fields, which then wipe to floral settings, or memorable imagery from Van Gogh's instantly recognizable pieces such as Mangeurs de Pommes de Terre (The Potato Eaters, 1885), Les Tournesols (Sunflowers,1888), La Chambre à coucher (The Bedroom, 1889), and the unforgettable Nuit étoilée (Starry Night, 1889).

Even the floor — lined with circles to stand or sit on for social distancing — is a piece of art. Visitors can stroll (highly recommended), space permitting, or sit, awash in Van Gogh's dreamscape.

"It's really interesting you comment that this could be Van Gogh's dream," Vito Iaia, co-founder of Impact Museums and the event's co-producer, tells CultureMap. "This is what Massimiliano Siccardi, the protection artist who created the work you see on the walls, believes went through Van Gogh's head — right before he died."

Part art exhibit, part animated film, "Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Houston" marries the work of three different artists: Van Gogh (of course), aforementioned projection artist Siccardi, and Rowan Doyle, the creative director who created the scenic elements surrounding the venue.

Those scenic elements include:

  • Sunflower pickup truck: A vintage Ford truck, parked outside the venue, gets a splash of sunflower yellow.
  • Van Gogh Chapel: Meant to be a love letter to Houston and specifically Rothko Chapel, this design is meant to be a contemplative space before entering the main gallery.
  • Van Gogh Timeline: As the name implies, this installation features pivotal moments of Van Gogh's career, with symbols harking to his short life.
  • Texas sunflower sign: Sunflowers dot the Texas state display, perfect for IG selfies.

A bar and gift shop also add to the experience.

At once stirring, playful, and poignant — even emotional — the experience is fitting for now, despite the artwork dating back to the late 1800s.

"People ask why Massimiliano chose Van Gogh right now," says Iaia. "And part of the answer is there's probably no better time to tell Van Gogh's story than right now. This is a reflection of what he went through as a troubled soul and the struggles people are going through today."

But it's not all dark. "The bright side is, this is a great way to remember his work. The reception has been amazing. It's giving him a new life."

Prepare for a serene, honest moment, but don't be surprised to be affected — especially with the final imagery. "People are driven to joys, or tears, or thought," says Iaia. I had someone come out and say, 'I just saw God.'"

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.