These Houston startups have created health care-related solutions amid the coronavirus outbreak. Getty Images

It's all hands on deck in Houston in the battle against coronavirus — and local biotech startups have risen to the occasion.

From mental health solutions and online portals to virtual medicine and new treatments, these Houston companies have recently launched or pivoted to new options in health care.

Mental Health Match

Ryan Schwartz is offering free counseling to Texans. Photo courtesy of Mental Health Match

Mental Health Match, a Houston-based startup that uses tech to easily connect people to mental health professionals, has announced the opportunity for 100 Texas residents to get their first appointment free and remotely.

The company cites data that shows:

  • A 78 percent increase in Texans who are concerned about their marriage
  • A 71 percent increase in Texans concerned with their parenting or their children
  • A 35 percent spike in Texans feeling panicked

"You might be practicing social distancing, but you are not alone. It is easier to make it through this together if you can get support and guidance from a skilled professional. That's why we're working with therapists across Texas to provide a free session to individuals who need it most," says Ryan Schwartz, founder of Mental Health Match, in a news release.

Texans can apply for the free sessions online on a first-come, first-served basis.

Medical Informatics Corp.

Medical Informatics Corp.'s Sickbay platform can monitor patients from afar. Photo via michealthcare.com

Houston-based Medical Informatics has created a virtual ICU program, called Sickbay, and the tech tool is being used to remotely monitor patients in Houston Methodist. The program works around the clock from a control hub to use artificial intelligence and algorithms to monitor patients.

The company, which recently moved into its office in TMCx+, announced major growth in January, just ahead of the coronavirus outbreak.

"We designed our Sickbay platform to give lost data back to doctors, nurses and other members of the care team so they could save more lives," says Vincent Gagne, vice president of product for MIC, in a news release. "In fact, our apps are built in collaboration with our clients, such as Texas Children's Hospital and Houston Methodist. Having these facilities blocks away from our headquarters accelerates that collaboration and development."

MolecularMatch

MolecularMatch is bringing together COVID-19 information and trials. Photo via molecularmatch.com

MolecularMatch, a Houston startup focused on clinical informatics, has launched a free portal that accumulates research and clinical trials for COVID-19. The company is a tenant of TMCx+ and a portfolio company of Houston-based venture capital group GOOSE.

"The number of therapeutic cures and vaccines being tested are growing at an astounding rate," says Eric Pulaski, CEO at MolecularMatch, in a news release. "Our tools make it easier for clinicians and patients to find the help they need. Hopefully, we can help save lives by shortening the time it takes to get more patients into clinical trials and by speeding up research to find cures and vaccines."

The product uses the company's artificial intelligence-backed curation platform and is updated every two to three days.

Luminare

Luminare Inc. pivoted to quickly create an online COVID-19 screening tool, and local governments have tapped into the resource.Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Founded in 2014, Houston-based health care software startup Luminare Inc. seeks to prevent sepsis, a life-threatening reaction to a host of infections that causes about one-third of U.S. hospital deaths. Recently, though, Luminare pivoted to address another health concern — the threat of the novel coronavirus.

After the novel coronavirus surfaced, Luminare retooled its sepsis-detection platform to create a free online self-assessment test for people who suspect they've contracted the virus. The test, available at CheckForCorona.com, helps someone figure out whether they should seek a coronavirus test.

An online screening typically takes less than two minutes. The confidential, secure assessment complies with guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Based on your assessment results, you might be directed to contact your local health department or, in the worst-case scenario, call 911. Click here to read more.

Manatee

Manatee users can sign up for three months free. Photo via getmanatee.com

Denver-based Manatee was just announced to be selected for the 2020 TMCx cohort, and — while programming is beginning virtually — the startup will be enroute to Houston as soon as it's safe. Manatee focuses on providing connected, everyday therapy for kids.

In light of the effects of COVID-19 on both parents and children, Manatee has allowed users to register for three months free. Individuals can apply online.

Moleculin Biotech Inc.

Houston-based Moleculin, which works on oncology treatment, has filed a patent for its treatment to battle the coronavirus. Getty Images

Houston-based Moleculin Biotech Inc., a clinical stage pharmaceutical company that typically focuses on cancer treatment, announced that it has filed for a new patent for its use of one of its products to be used against the coronavirus and other potential viruses.

This patent application is for Moleculin's WP1122, and the company has entered into a partnership with a major Texas university to advance its research.

"We've actually been working on the antiviral potential of WP1122 for some time now," says Walter Klemp, Moleculin's chairman and CEO, in a news release, "but the rise of COVID-19 has obviously placed a new sense of urgency on what we are doing. We hope to be generating animal data on WP1122's antiviral potential in the near term."

Pulmotech Inc.

Pulmotect, a clinical-stage biotechnology company based in Houston, is testing a drug that could be useful in mitigating the threats of the coronavirus, which is currently been recognized as a global health emergency. Getty Images

Experiments conducted by clinical-stage, Houston-based biotechnology company Pulmotect Inc. show its PUL-042 inhaled drug has proven effective in protecting mice against two types of coronavirus: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Researchers performed those tests at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

In the Galveston experiments, a single inhaled dose of PUL-042 protected lab mice from the SARS virus, and it greatly reduced the amount of virus in their lungs after the mice became infected with SARS or MERS.

"With the risks of virulent coronaviruses and other threats increasing, as shown by the recent outbreak in Wuhan that has already spread from China to other countries including the United States, Pulmotect is optimistic that its immune-stimulating technology could be useful in mitigating the threats of current and emerging pathogens and protecting vulnerable populations," says CEO Dr. Colin Broom in a news release. Click here to read more.

From cryotherapy and NASA-inspired fitness to startup funding and biotech, this week's innovators to know are raising the bar on health tech and innovation. Courtesy photos

4 health-focused Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week's innovators to know are focused on health and wellness, from a Houston-based cryotherapy franchise to the person behind funding medical device and digital health startups. We couldn't narrow these folks down to the usual three, so here are the four Houston innovators to know as we start the last week in February.

Juliana Garaizar, director of the Texas Medical Center Venture Fund

Courtesy of TMC

Juliana Garaizar has worked all around the world, and her international contacts and venture capital experience has landed her at the heart of the Texas Medical Center leading the TMC Venture Fund.

"I think TMC wants to be positioned as a strong competitor to the East and West Coasts as a point of entry for companies coming to the United States, but also for technology and commercializations from hospitals," she tells InnovationMap. "The fact that I'm already very connected to other countries — not only from the funding side but also from the research side, is really helpful."

Garaizar has her hands full running the $25 million nonprofit fund that invests around $2 million a year. Recipients, which all have a connection to TMC either through the accelerator or workspaces, receive a range between $250,000 to $500,000, and can go up to $1 million in a deal, Garaizar says. She is focused on securing deal flow for the fund before growing it more.

"In the long term, we would like to raise a bigger fun, around $100 million fund," she says. "We would need to make sure we have our deal flow ready for that, and a big part of that would be international deal flow."

Read more about Garaizar and the TMC Venture Fund here.

Walter Klemp, chairman and CEO of Moleculin

Courtesy of Moleculin

It's pretty concerning to Walter Klemp that, while Houston has the world's largest medical center, "the tragic irony" is that other cities have far more biotech money ready to be invested.

"The Third Coast is really starved for capital," he tells InnovationMap. "What drew me into this was I was one of the few entrepreneurs that lived here that knew the ropes in terms of tapping into East and West Coast capital structures and could make that connection for them."

In 2007, chairman and CEO Walter Klemp founded Moleculin Biotech Inc. as a private company. The company has three core technologies currently being tested with some success, but the most promising is called WP1066, which uses propolis, a compound of beeswax, sap and saliva that bees produce to seal small areas of their hives, as a base. The active compound both downregulates the STAT3, a long-time Holy Grail in the cancer research world, and directly attacking the tumor, but also quieting T Cells, which allows the body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. Essentially, it works both as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

Read more about Klemp and Moleculin here.

Jay Sutaria, founder and lead trainer of Sutaria Training & Fitness

Courtesy of ST&F

Earthbound Houstonians have a chance to use NASA training equipment thanks to Jay Sutaria's company, Sutaria Training & Fitness.

"It's exclusive access to the equipment that is not available openly in Houston," Sutaria tells InnovationMap. "NASA is a reference for us to become better trainers."

Sutaria founded his company in 2011 while he was a student at the University of Houston, and the company now operates with two trainers. His clients include professional athletes such as D.J. Augustin (Orlando Magic, NBA); and Tim Frazier (New Orleans Pelicans, NBA), however, Sutaria and his team offer professional personal training services to any type of athlete.

Read more about Sutaria and ST&F here.

Kyle Jones, COO of iCRYO

Courtesy of iCryo

Kyle Jones says he's always known he was destined for entrepreneurship, and when he came across the potential of cryotherapy while working at a physical therapist office, he knew it was a scalable business.

He opened his first location of iCRYO in League City in 2015. Now the company is

Jones says he used the location to work out the kinks of his business model, since he didn't really have much to model after. One thing that was most important to Jones, with his PT background, was safety of the patients. He cared about this more than making money, he says.

"I knew first and foremost the one thing that the cryotherapy space didn't have was a certification program, which is kind of terrifying to me," Jones tells InnovationMap. "Any therapy has some type of schooling or certification — massage therapy and acupuncture both have it. Cryotherapy even to date does not a certification to it."

Read more about Jones and iCRYO here.


Houston-based Moleculin has three different oncology technologies currently in trials. Getty Images

Houston biotech company aims to enhance oncology treatment of highly resistant cancers

Med tech

Immunotherapy and personalized medicine get all the headlines lately, but in the fight against cancer, a natural compound created by bees could beat them in winning one battle.

In 2007, chairman and CEO Walter Klemp founded Moleculin Biotech Inc. as a private company. The former CPA had found success in life sciences with a company that sold devices for the treatment of acne. That introduction into the field of medical technology pushed him toward more profound issues than spotty skin.

"Coincidentally, the inventor of that technology had a brother who was a neuro-oncologist at MD Anderson," Klemp recalls.

The since-deceased Dr. Charles Conrad slowly lured Klemp into what he calls the "cancer ecosphere" of MD Anderson. In 2016, the company went public. And it looks like sooner rather than later, it could make major inroads against some of the toughest cancers to beat.

Klemp observed that while Houston has the world's largest medical center, "the tragic irony" is that other cities have far more biotech money ready to be invested.

"The Third Coast is really starved for capital," he says. "What drew me into this was I was one of the few entrepreneurs that lived here that knew the ropes in terms of tapping into East and West Coast capital structures and could make that connection for them."

The company has three core technologies currently being tested with some success, but the most promising is called WP1066, named for researcher Waldemar Priebe, "a rock star" in his native Poland, according to Klemp, who works at MD Anderson. Though Priebe came to the U.S. in the 1980s, he is still an adjunct professor at the University of Warsaw and conducts some of his trials in Poland because it's easier to get grant money there.

WP1066 uses propolis, a compound of beeswax, sap and saliva that bees produce to seal small areas of their hives, as a base. The molecular compound that Priebe discovered affects STAT3 (signal transducer and activator of transcription), a transcription factor that encourages tumor development. In short, the active compound in WP1066 both downregulates the STAT3, a long-time Holy Grail in the cancer research world, and directly attacking the tumor, but also quieting T Cells, which allows the body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. Essentially, it works both as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

WP1066 is demonstrating drug-like properties in trials at MD Anderson on glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that recently took the life of the hospital's former president, John Mendelsohn, as well as John McCain and Beau Biden. It is also being tested against pancreatic cancer, one of the most virulent killers cancer doctors combat.

Priebe also created Annamycin, named for his oldest daughter, a first-line chemotherapy drug that fights Acute Myeloid Leukemia without the cardiotoxicity that can damage patients' hearts even as they beat their cancer.

WP1122 uses yet another mechanism to fight cancer.

"Most people don't know that morphine is essentially a modified version of heroin," Klemp explains.

The difference between the poppy-based drugs? Heroin can cross the blood-brain barrier. It's described as the dicetyl ester of morphine. WP1122 is the dicetyl ester of 2DG (2-Deoxyglucose), a glycolysis inhibitor, which works by overfilling tumor cells with fake glucose so that they can't consume the real glucose that makes them grow.

"The theory is, we could feed you so full of junk food that eventually you'd starve to death," Klemp elucidates. It can cross the blood-brain barrier and is metabolized slowly, meaning that it can be made into a drug in a way that 2DG cannot.

What's impressive about Moleculin is its diversity of drugs. Most companies have one drug that gets all or most of the attention. Moleculin has strong hopes for all three currently in trials.

"It's essentially multiple shots on the goal," says executive vice president and CFO Jonathan Foster.

Moleculin has 13 total employees, five of whom are based in Houston. An office in the Memorial Park area serves as a landing pad for employees and collaborators from around the world to get their work done when in Space City. The virtual office set-up works for the company because experts can stay in their home cities to get their work done. And that work is on its way to saving scores of lives.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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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.