Created through the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, Motif Neurotech is focused on developing minimally invasive bioelectronics for the treatment of psychiatric conditions. Photo via motifneuro.tech

A new tool in the fight against treatment-resistant depression could be on the horizon thanks to a Rice University professor.

Jacob Robinson, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and of bioengineering is also co-founder and CEO of Motif Neurotech. Created through the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, Motif Neurotech is focused on developing minimally invasive bioelectronics for the treatment of psychiatric conditions. The company closed its series A round with an oversubscribed $18.75 million earlier this year.

This week, Rice University announced that Robinson has published a peer-reviewed study in Science Advances describing his wireless device called the Digitally programmable Over-brain Therapeutic (DOT). The epidural cortical stimulator is 9 millimeters in width, meaning that it’s easily implantable but is powerful enough to send electrical stimulation to the brain through the dura, the membrane that protects the brain and spinal cord.

“It overcomes challenges by using a battery-free and wireless approach to create an implant that can deliver precise and programmable stimulation to the brain, without brain surgery,” Robinson explained in a press release.

Jacob Robinson, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and of bioengineering, is also co-founder and CEO of Motif Neurotech. Photo via motifneuro.tech

The DOT stimulator is intended to send electrical charges meant to provide neuromodulation for mental health woes including not just depression, but also obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. The treatment could be an alternative to transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a technique that has increased in popularity in recent years.

TMS uses pulsed magnetic fields to stimulate the brain. A typical TMS course includes 36 total treatments and can cause headaches. The DOT stimulator can enact the same timing patterns used in TMS, such as the intermittent theta burst stimulation (iTBS) paradigm, which has been noted to improve mood in patients, but can be achieved at home with far greater ease. Implantation takes just 20 minutes.

So far, the DOT stimulator has been implanted in both a human and a pig. In the pig, researchers noted that the electrical stimulation did not cause any damage to the brain or dura. Just as importantly, it showed stable performance for 30 days in inducing motor responses, meaning it can operate on a longer-term basis.

Motif Neurotech was founded along with Kaiyuan Yang and physicians Sunil Sheth and Sameer Sheth. The Rice Biotech Launchpad brings together local researchers like Robinson and his team with a network of industry executives. With their manuscript, entitled “Miniature battery-free epidural cortical stimulators” freshly published on the Science Advances website, big things could be coming for the bioelectronics company and for sufferers of treatment-resistant depression.

Rice team demonstrates miniature brain stimulator in humanswww.youtube.com

Motif Neurotech, which develops minimally invasive bioelectronics for mental health treatment, closed its series A round with an oversubscribed $18.75 million. Photo via Rice.edu

Rice University medical device spinout secures nearly $19M series A

fresh funding

A health tech startup based out of a newly formed accelerator program at Rice University has raised venture funding.

Motif Neurotech closed its series A round with an oversubscribed $18.75 million. The company, which develops minimally invasive bioelectronics for mental health treatment, was formed out of the Rice Biotech Launch Pad that launched last fall.

The round was led by Arboretum Ventures, with participation from new investors KdT Ventures, Satori Neuro, Dolby Family Ventures, re.Mind Capital and existing investors Divergent Capital, TMC Venture Fund, PsyMed Ventures, Empath Ventures and Capital Factory, according to a news release from Rice.

“Minimally invasive bioelectronics are the future of mental health treatment,” Jacob Robinson, CEO and founder of Motif Neurotech, says in the release. “Thirty percent of patients with depression don’t respond to two or more medications, and there is a significant need for additional treatment options that are effective and easily accessible."

The fresh funding will go toward developing the inaugural product, the DOT microstimulator, a wireless, battery-free device that can provide at-home therapy for treatment-resistant depression, or TRD, a major depressive disorder.

“This is a pivotal moment for the company as it closes its Series A in addition to the recent successful completion of the proof-of-concept first-in-human implant of the DOT stimulator device," Tom Shehab, managing partner of Arboretum Ventures, says in the release. "We believe Motif’s device will greatly improve the quality of life for patients who have been diagnosed with difficult to treat mental health disorders, including TRD."

Shehab, along with Amy Kruse, chief investment officer of Satori Neuro, will reportedly join Motif Neurotech's board of directors alongside Anthony Arnold, president and CEO of Sensydia Corporation, and Jacob Robinson, professor of electrical and computer engineering and bioengineering at Rice.

The Rice Biotech Launch Pad was established to take biotech innovations from concept to clinical trials in five years or less. It occupies 15,000 square feet of space on campus and is funded through federal grants and donations.

“This breakthrough technology has the potential to reshape the landscape of disease treatment and the future of research and development in the field of cell-based therapies." Photo via Getty Images

Rice lab cooks up breakthrough 'living pharmacy' research for potential cell therapy treatment

biotech innovation

Rice University’s Biotech Launchpad has created an electrocatalytic on-site oxygenator, or ecO2, that produces oxygen intended to keeps cells alive. The device works inside an implantable “living pharmacy,” which the Rice Biotech Launch Pad team believes will one day be able to administer and regulate therapeutics within a patient’s body.

Last week, Rice announced a peer-reviewed publication in Nature Communications detailing the development of the novel rechargeable device. The study is entitled “Electrocatalytic on-site oxygenation for transplanted cell-based-therapies.”

How will doctors use the “living pharmacy?” The cell-based therapies implanted could treat conditions that include endocrine disorders, autoimmune syndromes, cancers and neurological degeneration. One major challenge standing in the way of bringing the technology beyond the theoretical has been ensuring the survival of cells for extended periods, which is necessary to create effective treatments. Oxygenation of the cells is an important component to keeping them alive and healthy and the longer they remain so, the longer the therapeutics will be helpful.

Other treatments to deliver oxygen to cells are ungainly and more limited in terms of oxygen production and regulation. According to Omid Veiseh, associate professor of bioengineering and faculty director of the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, oxygen generation is achieved with the ecO2 through water splitting that is precisely regulated using a battery-powered, wirelessly controlled electronic system. New versions will have wireless charging, which means it could last a patient’s entire lifetime.

“Cell-based therapies could be used for replacing damaged tissues, for drug delivery or augmenting the body’s own healing mechanisms, thus opening opportunities in wound healing and treatments for obesity, diabetes and cancer, for example. Generating oxygen on site is critical for many of these ‘biohybrid’ cell therapies: We need many cells to have sufficient production of therapeutics from those cells, thus there is a high metabolic demand. Our approach would integrate the ecO2 device to generate oxygen from the water itself,” says Jonathan Rivnay of Northwestern University, who co-led the study with Tzahi Cohen-Karni of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

The study’s co-first authors are Northwestern’s Abhijith Surendran and CMU’s Inkyu Lee.

Northwestern leads the collaboration with Rice to produce therapeutics onsite within the device. The research supports a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) cooperative agreement worth up to $33 million to develop the implantable “living pharmacy” to control the human body’s sleep and wake cycles.

“This breakthrough technology has the potential to reshape the landscape of disease treatment and the future of research and development in the field of cell-based therapies. We are working toward advancing this technology into the clinic to bring it one step closer to those in need,” says Veiseh.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.