Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on his rapidly growing compounding pharmacy business. Photo courtesy of Empower Pharmacy

When Shaun Noorian encountered what he felt was a poorly ran process, as an engineer, he built something better. Now, he runs one of the nation's largest compounding pharmacies that's at a pivotal time for growth.

Headquartered in Houston, Empower Pharmacy is opening two new facilities locally — one debuts later this year and the other in 2022. Ahead of this milestone for his company, Noorian joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about how he decided to start his company and how he's grown it from a small office to two 85,000-square-foot facilities — as well as how Houston has been a big part of his company's success.

InnovationMap: Why did you decide to form Empower Pharmacy?

Shaun Noorian: I initially started Empower Pharmacy as a patient that was frustrated with the medication that I was receiving from a local compounding pharmacy in Houston.

I'd been working as a hydraulic fracturing field engineer at Schlumberger after graduating from college with a degree in mechanical engineering and was injured after several months on the job. I hemorrhaged three of my lower vertebrae and was put into physical therapy to try and fix my back. One of the doctors that was treating me noticed that I was very skinny for my age. I was probably 25 years old at the time. He decided to test my blood for the hormone testosterone, which is responsible for muscle growth and many other important factors in both men and women. The test determined that I had the testosterone level of an elderly man. The doctors sent me to Baylor College of Medicine for MRI blood tests, and they determined that I had a pituitary disorder and that I couldn't create the hormones responsible to tell my body to create testosterone. They put me on testosterone replacement therapy and it completely changed my life. Being testosterone deficient my entire life, I didn't realize what normal should be.When I was put on the medication, it was like a new lease on life. And I became very interested in the medication that I was taking, and how it worked. I studied everything I could. I was getting my medications from a local compounding pharmacy here in Houston, and I wasn't very satisfied with the quality of the service or the costs. Getting these medications was a very large percentage of my, what I was living off of. I couldn't figure out why this medication was so expensive when it cost just a few cents to make.

IM: How did you turn that passion into a business?

SN: I guess like most engineers, I decided I wanted to build — to make my own pharmacy. And make my own drugs and offer them to patients in a manner that I would want to it be from a patient's perspective when dealing with the compound pharmacy. I leased about 100 square feet in the back of the doctor's office. I pretty much converted one of his exam rooms and started my pharmacy there. I hired a pharmacist and did all the technician duties myself. I wanted to apply the patient experience that I would've wanted.

Slowly but surely, patients and prescribers around the area were very happy with the level of service and quality that they were receiving from our pharmacy. And we would get more requests through simple word of mouth and reputation. We grew pretty quickly out of that space and then built out a 1,500-square-foot space in a shopping center a couple of years later.

Following several more expansions and new locations throughout the years, we're now gearing up to open our new facility (7601 N. Sam Houston Parkway W., near the intersection of Highway 249 and Beltway 8), which will be the most advanced compounding pharmacy ever built. It has a lot of automation, and utilizes the same processes and equipment that Big Pharma uses to make their drugs. We're trying to better the system and continue to bring automation into the compounding industry so we can continue to scale and set a standard for the rest of the industry.

IM: What sets your business apart from what else is out there?

SN: We're a pharmacy that wants to do everything in house. We want to integrate our supply chain, and that means removing low value middleman from the health care ecosystem and streamline the medical distribution process. This means being the manufacturer, distributor, and regional pharmacy all in one, so we can really control our supply chain and integrate it. And at the same time, we can really be able to control and customize the consumer experience for both our patients and prescribers in a way that we would want. It's been a lot of fun being able to create your own healthcare ecosystem and building software for that your for patients that I'd want to use.

I'm an engineer. It's more fun talking about my equipment than anything else.

If you walk into a Walgreens, it's a simple repackaging operation. You're taking pills from a big bottle and putting them in a smaller bottle. What differentiates us from them and what's unique about this facility is that it's really built the same way as traditional pharmaceutical manufacturing is built using the same exact processes, systems, layout, etc.

We create our own purified water. We create our own clean, dry compressed air. We create our own clean steam that we use in our compounding processes, which are built to CGMP — current good manufacturing practices — specifications. We adopt a lot of those processes into the facility, and we built the facility around those standards that the FDA requires.

IM: You mentioned a new facility — but Empower is actually opening two new facilities within a year of each other. Tell me about those.

SN: Each facility is a mirror of each other — they are both 85,000 square feet. The one that's opening this year is going to be a pharmacy, so it'll just be dealing with patients. The next one is going to be licensed with the FDA and will work with larger institutions, selling medications in bulk for office use to institutions, hospitals, clinics, and prescribers. They will administer those medications to their patients in office. It's our way of being able to integrate that supply chain, so we can be that one-stop shop. So, physicians don't have to go to different vendors to source their medications — we can be an all-encompassing partner and vendor for them to source all their medical needs.

IN: How else are you expanding your business model?

SN: We've always concentrated on — since the inception of the company — quality, service, and cost. And we're always working to figure out how to increase quality, how to decrease costs, and how to make it easier and more convenient for our customers to use us. Some projects that we've been working on that are set to launch in the next few years is building out our own API – application programming interface – so that our telemedicine and other clients that are using electronic versions of health care record software can easily interface with our systems and vice versa.

IM: How has Houston been for you as a home base for Empower?

SN: I think being in Houston is one of the reasons why we've grown to become the largest compounding pharmacy in the nation. It's really just a lot of luck of being in Houston. I'm sure we're all aware that having the largest medical center in the world in your own backyard is a great way to have more prescribers than pretty much any other city in the country. That definitely helped us and continues to help us grow. Additionally, being the third largest city by population means we have a large workforce to pull a diverse workforce for whatever this company needs. Having a diverse workforce has been integral in our growth. Also, having two schools of pharmacy in our backyard has also helped.

There's a reason why, as we grow, we always stay in Houston. It doesn't make sense for us to go anywhere else. This is a great city and a great state to do business.

IM: Are you hiring?

Oh, we're always hiring. I think we currently have around 50 positions open and there's everything from pharmacy operations, all the way to manufacturing and marketing to sales, logistics, legal, you name it.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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These 3 Houston research projects are coming up with life-saving innovations

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Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, three Houston institutions are working on life-saving health care research thanks to new technologies.

Rice University scientists' groundbreaking alzheimer's study

Angel Martí (right) and his co-authors (from left) Utana Umezaki and Zhi Mei Sonia He have published their latest findings on Alzheimer’s disease. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer’s disease will affect nearly 14 million people in the U.S. by 2060. A group of scientists from Rice University are looking into a peptide associated with the disease, and their study was published in Chemical Science.

Angel Martí — a professor of chemistry, bioengineering, and materials science and nanoengineering and faculty director of the Rice Emerging Scholars Program — and his team have developed a new approach using time-resolved spectroscopy and computational chemistry, according to a news release from Rice. The scientists "found experimental evidence of an alternative binding site on amyloid-beta aggregates, opening the door to the development of new therapies for Alzheimer’s and other diseases associated with amyloid deposits."

Amyloid plaque deposits in the brain are a main feature of Alzheimer’s, per Rice.

“Amyloid-beta is a peptide that aggregates in the brains of people that suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, forming these supramolecular nanoscale fibers, or fibrils” says Martí in the release. “Once they grow sufficiently, these fibrils precipitate and form what we call amyloid plaques.

“Understanding how molecules in general bind to amyloid-beta is particularly important not only for developing drugs that will bind with better affinity to its aggregates, but also for figuring out who the other players are that contribute to cerebral tissue toxicity,” he adds.

The National Science Foundation and the family of the late Professor Donald DuPré, a Houston-born Rice alumnus and former professor of chemistry at the University of Louisville, supported the research, which is explained more thoroughly on Rice's website.

University of Houston professor granted $1.6M for gene therapy treatment for rare eye disease

Muna Naash, a professor at UH, is hoping her research can result in treatment for a rare genetic disease that causes vision loss. Photo via UH.edu

A University of Houston researcher is working on a way to restore sight to those suffering from a rare genetic eye disease.

Muna Naash, the John S. Dunn Endowed Professor of biomedical engineering at UH, is expanding a method of gene therapy to potentially treat vision loss in patients with Usher Syndrome Type 2A, or USH2A, a rare genetic disease.

Naash has received a $1.6 million grant from the National Eye Institute to support her work. Mutations of the USH2A gene can include hearing loss from birth and progressive loss of vision, according to a news release from UH. Naash's work is looking at applying gene therapy — the introduction of a normal gene into cells to correct genetic disorders — to treat this genetic disease. There is not currently another treatment for USH2A.

“Our goal is to advance our current intravitreal gene therapy platform consisting of DNA nanoparticles/hyaluronic acid nanospheres to deliver large genes in order to develop safe and effective therapies for visual loss in Usher Syndrome Type 2A,” says Naash. “Developing an effective treatment for USH2A has been challenging due to its large coding sequence (15.8 kb) that has precluded its delivery using standard approaches and the presence of multiple isoforms with functions that are not fully understood."

BCM researcher on the impact of stress

This Baylor researcher is looking at the relationship between stress and brain cancer thanks to a new grant. Photo via Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Stress can impact the human body in a number of ways — from high blood pressure to hair loss — but one Houston scientist is looking into what happens to bodies in the long term, from age-related neurodegeneration to cancer.

Dr. Steven Boeynaems is assistant professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine. His lab is located at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, and he also is a part of the Therapeutic Innovation Center, the Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, and the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor.

Recently, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, awarded Boeynaems a grant to continue his work studying how cells and organisms respond to stress.

“Any cell, in nature or in our bodies, during its existence, will have to deal with some conditions that deviate from its ideal environment,” Boeynaems says in a BCM press release. “The key issue that all cells face in such conditions is that they can no longer properly fold their proteins, and that leads to the abnormal clumping of proteins into aggregates. We have seen such aggregates occur in many species and under a variety of stress-related conditions, whether it is in a plant dealing with drought or in a human patient with aging-related Alzheimer’s disease."

Now, thanks to the CPRIT funding, he says his lab will now also venture into studying the role of cellular stress in brain cancer.

“A tumor is a very stressful environment for cells, and cancer cells need to continuously adapt to this stress to survive and/or metastasize,” he says in the release.

“Moreover, the same principles of toxic protein aggregation and protection through protein droplets seem to be at play here as well,” he continues. “We have studied protein droplets not only in humans but also in stress-tolerant organisms such as plants and bacteria for years now. We propose to build and leverage on that knowledge to come up with innovative new treatments for cancer patients.”

Houston university's online MBA program rises in the ranks of newly released report

A for improvement

Rice University's online MBA program has something to brag about. According to a new report, the program has risen through the ranks of other online MBA curriculums.

MBA@Rice, the online program at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice, has ranked higher in four categories in the latest edition of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Online Programs. The report evaluated schools based on data specifically related to their distance education MBA programs, and U.S. News has a separate ranking for non-MBA graduate business degrees in areas such as finance, marketing and management. The MBA list focused on engagement, peer assessment, faculty credentials and training, student excellence, and services and technologies.

“We use the same professors to deliver the same rigorous, high-touch MBA in our online MBA as we do in all our campus-based programs,” said Rice Business Dean Peter Rodriguez. “The strong national rankings recognize our success in reaching highly talented working professionals who don’t live near enough to our campus or for whom an online program is the best option.”

Rice's virtual MBA program ranked No. 12 (tied) in the 2023 list, which was up several spots from its 2022 ranking, which was No. 20. Additionally, Rice stood out in these other three categories:

  • Best Online MBA Programs for Veterans: tied for No. 10 (No. 14 last year).
  • Best Online Business Analytics MBA Programs: tied for No. 10 (tied for No. 12 last year).
  • Best Online General Management MBA Programs: tied for No. 7 (tied for No. 11 last year).

Rice recently announced a hybrid MBA program that combines online instruction with in-person engagement. The first cohort is slated to start this summer.

The MBA@Rice program is the top-ranked Texas-based program on the virtual MBA list. Several other programs from the Lone Star State make the list of 366 schools, including:

  • University of Texas at Dallas at No. 17
  • Texas Tech University at No. 33
  • Baylor University, University of North Texas, and West Texas A&M University tied for No, 65

U.S News & World Report ranked other online programs. Here's how Houston schools placed on the other lists:

  • The University of Houston tied for No. 10 in Best Online Master's in Education Programs and tied for No. 75 in Best Online Master's in Business Programs
  • Rice University, in addition to its MBA ranking, tied for No. 27 on the Online Master’s in Computer Information Technology Programs ranking after being tied for No. 49 last year
  • University of Houston-Downtown ranked No. 26 in Best Online Master's in Criminal Justice Programs and tied for No. 55 in Best Online Bachelor's Programs

The full list of best online higher education programs ranked by U.S. News & World Report is available online.

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 sustainable fashion to tech manufacturing — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Hannah Le, founder of RE.STATEMENT

Hannah Le founded RE.STATEMENT to provide a much-needed platform for sustainable fashion finds. Photo courtesy of RE.STATEMENT

It's tough out there for a sustainable fashion designer with upcycled statement pieces on the market. First of all, there historically hasn't been a platform for designers or shoppers either, as Hannah Le explains on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"Most designers give up if they haven't sold an item within three months," Le says. "That's something RE.STATEMENT has dedicated its business model to — making sure that items sell faster and at a higher value than any other marketplace."

RE.STATEMENT won one of the city of Houston's startup competition, Liftoff Houston's categories last year. Le shares what's next for the early-stage company on the show. Read more and listen to the episode.

Misha Govshteyn, CEO of MacroFab

MacroFab has secured fresh investment to the tune of $42 million. Photo courtesy of MacroFab

MacroFab, a Houston-based electronics manufacturing platform, has announced $42 million in new growth capital. The company was founded by Misha Govshteyn and Chris Church, who built a platform that manage electronics manufacturing and enables real-time supply chain and inventory data. The platform can help customers go from prototype to high-scale production with its network of more than 100 factories across the continent.

“Electronics manufacturing is moving toward resilience and flexibility to reduce supply chain disruptions,” says Govshteyn, MacroFab’s CEO, in a news release. “We are in the earliest stages of repositioning the supply chain to be more localized and focused on what matters to customers most — the ability to deliver products on time, meet changing requirements, and achieve a more sustainable ecological footprint. MacroFab is fundamental to building this new operating model.”

The company has seen significant growth amid the evolution of global supply chain that's taken place over the past few years. According to the company, shipments were up 275 percent year-over-year. To keep up with growth, MacroFab doubled its workforce, per the release, and opened a new facility in Mexico. Read more.

Kelli Newman, president of Newman & Newman Inc.

In her guest column, Kelli Newman explains how to leverage communications at any stage your company is in. Photo courtesy of Newman & Newman

Kelli Newman took actionable recommendations from investors, customers, advisers, and founders within Houston to compose a guest column with key observations and advice on leveraging communications.

"The significance of effective communication and its contribution to a company’s success are points regularly stressed by conference panelists and forum speakers," she writes. "Yet for many founders it’s advice that fuels frustration for how to make communications a priority with a lack of understanding of the practice." Read more.