BiVACOR named Thomas Vassiliades as CEO effective immediately. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

A Houston-based preclinical artificial heart device company has a new head honcho as it grows its team and further develops its technology.

BiVACOR named Thomas Vassiliades as CEO effective immediately. He replaces the company's founder, Daniel Timms, in the position. BiVACOR is on track to head toward human clinical trials and commercialization, and Vassiliades is tasked with leading the way.

“BiVACOR led an extensive CEO search, and Tom was the clear choice given his experience, background, leadership style, and exceptional track record,” says Timms in a news release. “Tom has the skillset and credibility to guide BiVACOR through its next chapter of transformation and advancement as we undertake the next stage of clinical activities leading up to First in Human early feasibility studies.”

Vassiliades has over 30 years of experience within the medical device industry as well as cardiothoracic surgery. He was most recently the general manager of the surgery and heart failure business at Abiomed and held several leadership roles at Medtronic. Dr. Vassiliades received his MD from the University of North Carolina, and his MBA was achieved with distinction at Emory University.

“I am excited and honored to join the BiVACOR team, working closely with Daniel and the entire team as we look forward to bringing this life-changing technology to the market,” says Dr. Vassiliades in the release. “Throughout my career, I’ve been guided by the goal of bringing innovative cardiovascular therapies to the market to improve patient care and outcomes – providing solutions for those that don’t have one. BiVACOR is uniquely well-positioned to provide long-term therapy for patients with severe biventricular heart failure.”

Timms will take over BiVACOR's technical team working on the Total Artificial Heart system as CTO. The device, billed as the first long-term therapy for patients with severe heart failure, is an implantable artificial heart based on rotary blood-pump technology. Similar in size to an adult fist, it is small enough to be implanted in many women and some children yet capable of delivering enough cardiac power to a man who's exercising. Unlike the two-chamber human heart, BiVACOR's device features a single chamber.

The medical device company, which has operations in Houston and Australia, recently announced the addition of eight new employees doubling their team. The growth comes following its series B raise last year.

“It is a testament to the great progress the team has made and to the importance of the unmet clinical need addressed by the Total artificial Heart technology," Timms says on the appointment of Vassiliades. "We look forward to Tom’s leadership as BiVACOR navigates the path to commercialization.”

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

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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.”

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

Health tech executive leads Houston startup into its next generation following $12.8M series B

houston innovators podcast episode 103

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

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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

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Space City News: Houston Spaceport receives grant, unicorn hires architecture firm

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The Space City is starting 2022 off strong with news launching out of the Houston Spaceport — a TK-acre space in TK Houston.

The two big headlines include a unicorn company releasing the latest details of its earthbound project and fresh funds from the state to support the space ecosystem in Texas.

Governor Abbott doles out $10M in spaceport grants

Texas has launched fresh funding into two spaceport projects. Image via fly2houston.com

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott announced $10 million in funding to two Texas spaceports as a part of the state's Spaceport Trust Fund. The Houston Spaceport Development Corp. received $5 million and the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corp. received $5 million.

The fund is administered by the Governor's Office of Economic Development and Tourism and was created to support the development of spaceport infrastructure, create quality jobs, and attract continuing investments that will strengthen the economic future of the state, according to a news release.

"For decades, Texas has been a trailblazer in space technology and we are proud to help cultivate more innovation and development in this growing industry in Cameron and Harris County," says Abbott in the release. "This investment in the Cameron County and Houston Spaceport Development Corporations will create even more economic opportunities for Texans across the state and continue our legacy as a leader in space technology."

Axiom Space hires Dallas-based architecture and engineering firm

Axiom Space has made progress on developing its 14-acre headquarters. Image via axiomspace.com

Houston-based unicorn Axiom Space has announced that it awarded Dallas-based Jacobs the architecture and engineering phase one design contract. The firm will be working on the 100,000-square-foot facility planned for the 400-acre Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport.

Axiom Space's plans are ro build the first commercial space station that will provide a central hub for research, to support microgravity experiments, manufacturing, and commerce in low Earth orbit missions, according to a news release.

"This is an exciting and historic moment for Axiom and the greater Houston area," says Axiom CTO Matt Ondler in the release. "For the first time, spacecraft will be built and outfitted right here in Houston, Texas. This facility will provide us with the infrastructure necessary to scale up operations and bring more aerospace jobs to the area. With this new facility, we are not only building next generation spacecraft, but also solidifying Houston as the U.S. commercial industry's gateway to space."

Axiom Space, which raised $130M in venture capital last year, is building out its 14-acre headquarters to accommodate the creation of more than 1,000 high-paying jobs, from engineers to scientists, mathematicians, and machinists.

"Houston is a city built on innovation and is becoming a next-generation tech hub in the United States," says Ron Williams, senior vice president at Jacobs. "Privately funded infrastructure will drive U.S. leadership in space. Jacobs is committed to providing integrated solutions to accelerate the future of commercial space operations."

Houston food charity scores prestigious Amazon tech grant

high tech gift

One of Houston’s most cherished food charities has been recognized for its tech prowess. Houston Food Bank has been awarded the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Imagine Grant.

The endowment honors “the vision and work of nonprofit organizations as they seek to improve their communities and the world with the help of cloud technology,” per a press release.

Specifically, the food bank was recognized in the Go Further, Faster category for the launching of a cloud-native digital logistics platform to better serve vulnerable populations facing food insecurity (that insecurity was greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the food bank notes.

Each winner in this category receives up to $150,000 in unrestricted funding, up to $100,000 in AWS Promotional Credit, and essential engagement with AWS technical specialists.

The challenges of COVID and the pandemic forced the food bank to get creative — and it responded. The food bank began delivering meals in March 2020 as part of its COVID-19 response through partnerships with volunteers, staff, corporate donors, and organizations such as CrowdSource Rescue, Task Rabbit, and Amazon.

This pilot has been a success: to date, more than 2.3 million meals have been delivered to those in need, the food bank notes in press materials.

Tech-wise, the food bank’s Home Delivery Platform operates using a cloud-native serverless architecture which includes heavy use of AWS services (AWS Lambda, Amazon DynamoDB, Amazon API Gateway, AWS Amplify, and more), with a mobile web responsive front-end written in React/Typescript.

The client side is split across four responsive web applications, each with a different function: Home Delivery management, pantry management, client orders, and driver deliveries. All of these apps utilize shared components and APIs that communicate with each other based on the different user personas.

Pariveda Solutions serves as the technology partner for the implementation of this platform. The project is a capability expansion on top of an existing manual process to deliver food to clients.

Houston Food Bank applied for the Imagine Grant in order to enhance their process digitally, connect submitted orders to the client’s nearest pantry, and manage delivery operations more effectively, with an emphasis on time management and delivery logistics, the organization notes in a release.

“With the success of our home delivery operations, Houston Food Bank’s goal now is to scale operations to expand home delivery for greater reach and impact,” said HFB president/CEO Brian Greene in a statement. “Additionally, with the proposed improvements, we hope to shift to utilizing volunteers for this important service instead of third-party delivery providers, and to deliver food using the client choice model, where clients may select foods based on personal preference, cultural and dietary needs. We are thankful to AWS and Pariveda Solutions for providing their support and expertise as we continue to find new ways to solve the age-old problem of hunger and work towards our ultimate vision of a world that no longer needs food banks.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

New Ion exec focuses on building density, bridging the gaps within Houston innovation

houston innovator podcast episode 117

After years of being in the works, The Ion Houston opened last year — but not in the way it was always hoping to. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the 300,000-square-foot space in the renovated historic Sears building in Midtown slowly opened its doors to the Houston innovation community and brought back in-person programming as safely as it could.

Despite the challenges the pandemic posed, The Ion, which is owned and operated by Rice Management Company, had a lot to show for 2021 — 95 events on and offline, new coworking space opened, corporate partners built out their offices, and more. And, among the additions to The Ion, was Joey Sanchez, who previously served as director of corporate engagement at Houston Exponential. Sanchez has been in his new role as senior director of ecosystem at The Ion for about three months now.

"I'm focusing specifically on the communities of entrepreneurs, startups, investors — and trying to bridge connections among them," Sanchez says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "This is the biggest challenge in Houston and we want to flip that with density. Density is really the key to solving connections."

Sanchez says The Ion, and the surrounding Innovation District, is building out to be that convening space for this density of innovation and tech activity.

This month, The Ion is set to deliver on a few of the amenities that have been in the works. First, the investor studio, a place for venture capital investors to meet with local businesses, will open next week. Later this month a high-tech prototyping lab will be unveiled as well as Common Bond, which Sanchez describes as a must-visit coffee shop for Houston's innovators.

"That's going to be the hottest coffee shop in Houston to run into a co-founder, tech talent, an investor — it really is exciting," Sanchez says. "Bridging these connections has been made easier now that I have a home that's as large as this."

Sanchez is familiar with connecting over coffee. He launched a weekly coffee meet up for Houston innovators. He hosts Cup of Joey every Friday morning at Finn Hall in downtown Houston to give everyone in Houston — new or old to the tech ecosystem — a chance to connect. He says he's excited to keep this up throughout 2022 too.

As for taking initial steps into Houston innovation, Sanchez advises attending any of the 400 to 500 events — virtual and in person — that happen in Houston.

"Just show up," Sanchez says. "It's so underrated, and through a pandemic it was obviously tough to do, but just showing up is the first step."

Sanchez shares more about what gets him so excited about Houston innovation on the show. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes