Houston named a top city for women in STEM fields

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Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are well represented in Houston, according to a recent report. Photo via Christina Morillo/Pexels

If you're a woman in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics and you call Houston home, according to a new report, you're doing it right.

In honor of Women's History Month, CommercialCafe updated its 2020 ranking of the top U.S. cities for women working in STEM. According to the report, Houston ranks at No. 5 on the list of the best southern cities in the United States for women in STEM. The Bayou City also claims the No. 19 spot nationally.

Here are some other key findings about Houston on the report:

  • STEM jobs in Houston account for 7 percent of all jobs, and a little less than a third of these positions are held by women.
  • About 23,964 women work in STEM in Houston — which is the most out of any other city in the South.
  • Houston gained 4,318 new women STEM employees since 2015, the third-highest number in this regional ranking.
  • The median annual income for women in STEM here is $68,172.
Texas makes up about half of the top 10 Southern states — Austin places in second, while Frisco (No. 7), Dallas (No. 8) and Plano (No. 10) fall behind Houston. Nationally, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle take the top three spots, respectively.

Women working in STEM - South 2021 - Infograminfogram.com

Houston has been recognized for its STEM fields before, and last fall, SmartAsset ranked Houston as No. 7 in STEM nationally based on workforce size. And, in 2019, Houston placed sixth for STEM workforce diversity. Last year Houston also ranked No. 6 for women in tech, also according to SmartAsset.

Brittany Barreto wants Pheramor to be known for its science-based dating expertise. Karla Martin/Pheramor

Houston entrepreneur positions her company as a leader in online dating

Digital romance

Brittany Barreto was years ahead of the marketplace when she had her idea for a DNA-based dating app, now called Pheramor. At the time, online dating mostly consisted of eHarmony and sending your DNA through the mail to anyone just wasn't done.

"I had the idea at 18 — almost 10 years ago — and, at that time, 23AndMe was shut down because the FDA wasn't comfortable with it," Barreto says. "But then in 2016, everyone is using dating apps and everyone is sending their spit in the mail. It was a perfect time to introduce a techy way to find love."

Even better, now Pheramor's potential users have swiping fatigue, Barreto says, and are going on chronically bad first dates. For Pheramor, this provided an opportunity, and Barreto took it.

Since its nation-wide launch in September, Pheramor has seen over 5000 messages sent on the app, resulting in 19 happy couples to date. Pheramor has even been nominated for Best New Dating App by iDate, an international conference where Barreto recently gave a keynote speech.

Pheramor works like any other dating app — except instead of swiping through endless possibilities, you see your estimated compatibility with each person based on DNA and interests that are either data mined off your social media or you manually plug into the app. Users first download the app, create an account, and request a kit.

While the B-to-C side of things has been a great approach for Pheramor, the technology has attracted interest from other dating apps. Barreto says she looks to expand into B-to-B opportunities where establishing dating companies can use her technology across the world. She made this clear in here iDate keynote address.

"I said there that if you want to factor in DNA to your dating app, you come to us. We are a B-to-C dating app, but we can also offer our genetic testing services for your platform," she says. "We have a letter of intent with a dating app in Russia. We're speaking with high-end matchmakers."

Barreto sat down with InnovationMap to discuss Pheramor's origins and what she has up her sleeves.

InnovationMap: When did you first have the idea for Pheramor?

Brittany Barreto: I first had the idea when I was 18 at Drew University, where I did my undergraduate research in New Jersey. We were in a genetics seminar, and we were learning about genetic-based human attraction — essentially how scientists for decades can predict who's attracted to whom because of your DNA. I raised my hand and asked if I could make a gene-harmony because of this. The professor and the class kind of laughed, but I said, "No, I'm serious, could I use this science for dating?" The professor said, "I mean, I guess you could." So I thought, one day I'll make gene-harmony.

IM: How did you get involved in the Houston innovation scene?

BB: I finished college and came down here to Houston to get my PhD at Baylor College of Medicine, and I just always had this idea, and I kept thinking about it. When I was working on my PhD, I realized I just had way too much personality to work in a lab my whole life. I started taking some entrepreneurship classes and networking at startup events thinking that I could land a career at a biotech company doing sales or innovation. All of the sudden, people started telling me that I had the founder blood, and I thought well I only have one really crazy idea for a DNA-based dating app, and people told me it was a good idea.

IM: What was your first move launching the company?

BB: I joined an accelerator in the medical center through Enventure. They have about 2,000 members — a lot of PHDs and grad students with a lot of great ideas who have no clue how to start a company. So, Enventure puts on evening classes for free, networking events, brainstorming sessions, and the accelerator. I pitched my idea, and got accepted. That's where I found my co-founder Bin Huang. Between January and March of 2017 we were in the accelerator every Thursday.

IM: How did you first get funding?

BB: We did our Demo Day in March at TMCx, and we won. A few angel investors came up to us after words with the idea for an open round, and Bin and I realized this wasn't a class project any more. This was real. We closed our first round of funding in July of 2017, while Bin and I were full-time students. We met our goal, and then we had another round of funding that was oversubscribed.

IM: When did you start accepting swabs and daters?

BB: Our first swab actually came from a swab party I had at my apartment. I invited about 50 friends over, and we had a party. We had a swab station set up in my bedroom and people waited in line in the hallway. That was our first 50 swabs. It was in the spring of 2017, right after our Demo Day.

IM: So, how does Pheramor work?

BB: The science behind attraction based on your DNA is that people are attracted to one another when their immune systems are different — opposites attract is biologically true. This is what all of the animal kingdom does. When we were cavewomen and cavemen, we didn't know who was our uncle and who was our cousin, so we used our nose to figure out who is genetically diverse compared to us, and if you're genetically diverse, then you're probably not my relative, and therefore we'd have healthier children. So, that's the baseline of attraction. We have these HLA genes that make up our immune system, and your pheromones are giving off essentially like a fingerprint of what your immune system is.

At Pheramor, we look at those 11 genes of attraction — we don't look at anything else. Some people might be concerned that I'll know their ancestry or their diseases and sell their data, but we don't look at that. I actually don't even know your gender based on the swab.

My co-founder and I have written this machine-learning algorithm that looks at the genes and figures out quantitatively how likely it is for you to have physical chemistry with one another. Then, in the app, you can have a score and match report to see that.

IM: What were some of the early challenges?

BB: The biggest one when I was 18 was that the market wasn't ready. I called it "geneharmony" because eHarmony and Match were the only players in the game back then. Also, sending your spit in the mail was really weird. It's not so weird any more.

The next one was being a PhD student working in a field that expects everyone to go into academia. There's not enough academic jobs for scientists anymore. We have to start branching out — work in biotech, become consultants, work in other industries. But the issue is there's an old guard in academia. I had a mentor — a woman I worked for — who had only ever trained academics and thinks that that's what scientists do. So, I didn't experience a lot of support in school for starting a company. It's super cool and I'm successful, and it gives Baylor College of Medicine a great name, but when I was in there, I kept Pheramor a secret. I had to essentially sneak around to do it. Get to the lab really early in the mornings to start experiments so I could leave early for investor meetings or hide in the storage closet to make calls to investors.That was definitely difficult.

Another challenge was starting to pitch and being called the "student team." Right off the bat, they felt like they were doing us a favor for letting us pitch. It was cute. So, I had to start doing some strategies to make my company seem more valuable because I was going uphill. I would wear a lab coat and if any other scientist wore a lab coat to a presentation with scientists, it would be weird, but no investor ever asked me why I was in a lab coat.

IM: A year and a half later since your first swab party, how have things changed?

BB: It's funny, I was just thinking a while back about having a Halloween party and thinking, "we could swab people!" So, I'm not above swab parties. For most of 2017, we did a lot of grassroots efforts. We were at Pride Festival, swab parties at bars, Day For Night — some were successful, and others were a waste of money. It was a science of figuring out what works. There's so much education we have — what the swab is, how it works, etc. In person, we got to explain all that and hear what their questions were and take that and turn it into a FAQ section on our site.

IM: Where can people use your app?

BB: We're nationwide. We're actually downloaded in every state in the country. We did what the market told us to. One day I came into the office and asked my co-founder why we wanted to only be in Houston. He told me that people want to date other daters. And I asked him if we knew that or if we just think that. We never actually asked them. So, we surveyed our user base and asked them if they had highly compatible numbers with someone in, say, Chicago, would they want to know. And something like 89 percent said yes. We realized that our consumers are 28- to 38-year-old singles seeking commitment. They are highly educated and have really great paying jobs, and they travel a lot anyways. So, we opened it up on September 7, and in 30 days we saw over 50 percent growth in our user base.

IM: Are you marketing in specific metros?

BB: At first, we did a blanket marketing effort. Then, we looked into which cities had the lowest CAD — the cost to acquire a download. New York City and Boston are the cheapest. San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami are also cheaper than Houston.

IM: What are some goals for you and Pheramor?

BB: Short term, it's to continue to improve our app. We're slowly building it in response to what consumer feedback says. I also want to build our team. With the next round of funding, that's what I'm focused on. Our CMO and CFO are part time, and I want them full time. I also want to be hitting critical mass in Boston, New York, LA, Miami. We have a few hundred people in each of those cities, but I want to make those to be a really healthy number.

And something the market has asked for a lot is testing for couples. So, we have a we a website that's about to launch called "WeHaveChemistry.com" for couples to buy two kits and receive a report.

As an academic in genetics, I had to take a lot of ethics classes — for good reason. We've really taken a stance here at Pheramor saying that we will only use genetic data for good. We do not sell our data to anyone, except one organization with the user's consent. The organization is Gift of Life, a national bone marrow registry. The genes for attraction are also genes that fight leukemia and lymphoma. To register to be a bone marrow donor, you have to get your cheek swabbed and you have to get your HLA genes typed. That's what we're doing as a dating app. So through our app, you can consent to be a donor. That to me is how you could use data for good. We're finding people love, and we're finding a girl with leukemia a bone marrow donor.

------

Portions of this interview have been edited.

Houston isn't very attractive of an ecosystem for STEM professionals, according to a new report. Getty Images

​​Report finds Houston has room to grow as an attractive city for STEM professionals​​

Needs improvement

Houston has been heralded as a great place to find a job in many instances, so it may come as some surprise that when it comes to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the Bayou City isn't primed for professionals.

The city ranked No. 33 out of the 100 largest metros in the United States in a study conducted by WalletHub. The 17 metrics corresponded to professional opportunities, STEM friendliness, or quality of life. Within those categories, Houston ranked No. 47, No. 20, and No. 54, respectively.

Some of the areas where the Houston area stood out is wage, engineering educational opportunities, and projected demand for STEM jobs in 2020. Houston had the highest annual median wage for STEM workers, which was adjusted for cost of living.

While Houston seems to be predicted to need STEM professionals, the city currently has among the worst STEM employment growth and among the highest unemployment rate for STEM professionals with a Bachelor's degree or higher.

Austin, which ranked at No. 4, was the only Texas city to rank higher than Houston, and Dallas followed close behind Houston at No. 38. Dallas actually performed similar to Houston across the categories, while Austin's scores reflected that the city provided the 8th best STEM professional opportunities in the country.

Rounding out the top five on the list was Seattle at No. 1, Boston at No. 2, Pittsburgh at No. 3, and San Francisco at No.5.

In November, Accenture's Brian Richards wrote a guest column for InnovationMap on how Houston could advance as a premier city for tech and innovation. He proffered that STEM talent is a key component the city needs — both coming into the ecosystem as well as remaining here.

"Houston already has tremendous amounts of STEM talent but doesn't produce enough talent or retain enough of the locally-grown talent," he writes. "To jumpstart, we are going to have to import it initially."

Apparently, this isn't an issue unique to Houston. According to Martin Storksdieck, director for the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning in Oregon, while the U.S. has been successfully attracting outsiders to STEM higher education roles, there's a growing need for specific STEM jobs like nurses and computer scientists.

"The US is neither creating, attracting nor retaining middle-skilled STEM professionals in any competitive fashion," Storksdieck says in the report. "[Meanwhile], about half of academic STEM graduate students in the US are foreign born."

Pheramor takes users' DNA and social media habits and matches them with compatible partners. Courtesy of Pheramor

Houston DNA-based dating app expands nationwide, launches next funding round

From swiping to swabbing

Houston singles can find their perfect match — even if it's someone across the country. Houston-based Pheramor — a DNA-based dating app — is available for download in every state.

Brittany Barreto, Pheramor's co-founder and CEO, has a PhD in genetics from Baylor College of Medicine. She first had the idea in a genetics seminar when she was 18 and in college, but that was almost 10 years ago, and the market wasn't ready. Now, she says singles have swipe fatigue from the existing and ineffective dating apps, and it's also relatively normal now to send your spit in the mail thanks to 23AndMe.

Pheramor users download the app and request a test kit. After a few cheek swabs, they send it back to Barreto and her team and they identify 11 immune system genes and upload the data to the user's profile. The app then compares the genes to other users to give a compatibility score.

"The science behind attraction based on your DNA is that people are attracted to one another when their immune systems are different — opposites attract is biologically true," Barreto says. "When we were cavewomen and cavemen, we didn't know who was our uncle and who was our cousin, so we used our nose to figure out who is genetically diverse compared to us. If you're genetically diverse, then you're probably not my relative, and therefore we'd have healthier children."

Pheramor also calculates a social score based on a questionnaire or a data mine of a user's social media. The overall compatibility score uses both the DNA and social compatibility scores.

The app launched in Houston in March to a great reception of local singles, but, a few months later, Barreto realized nothing was holding them back from expanding nationwide.

"We surveyed our user base and asked them if they had highly compatible numbers with someone in, say, Chicago, would they want to know," Barreto says. "And something like 89 percent said yes."

Pheramor users are usually between 28 and 38, have good paying jobs, and are seeing commitment, Barreto says. Most of them travel around a lot already.

"We opened it up on September 7, and in 30 days we saw over 50 percent growth in our user base."

The company has zeroed in on a few key metros where advertising dollars go a long way for generating user downloads; Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami have all been great markets for Pheramor.

With the user base growing, Barreto is focused on growing her team. Pheramor's current round of funding launched November 1, and with the capital raised, she hopes to be able to make the team's CFO and chief marketing officer both full time.

Pheramor is also working on using its custom algorithm as a resource to other existing dating services worldwide as well as for couples who want to see their compatibility score with their current partners.

"A long-term goal that's coming to fruition a lot faster than I thought is Pheramor being a leader in genetic testing for romance," Barreto says.

Science of love

Karla Martin/Pheramor

Pheramor CEO and co-founder, Brittany Barreto, first thought of a DNA-based dating company when she was in undergraduate student studying biology. The idea stuck with her as she went through her genetics doctoral program at Baylor College of Medicine.

Jim Allison's groundbreaking work with T cells helped him net the award. Photo courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center

Houston scientist wins Nobel Prize for breakthrough cancer treatment

Research Recognition

A University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center scientist has been lauded for his cancer research. Jim Allison, Ph.D., was announced as the recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on October 1.

Allison, who is the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform, is the first MD Anderson scientist to receive the world's most coveted award for discoveries in the fields of life sciences and medicine. Allison won for his work in launching an effective new way to attack cancer by treating the immune system rather than the tumor, according to a release.

"I'm honored and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition," Allison says in a statement. "A driving motivation for scientists is simply to push the frontiers of knowledge. I didn't set out to study cancer, but to understand the biology of T cells, these incredible cells to travel our bodies and work to protect us."

Allison shares the award with Tasuku Honjo, M.D., Ph.D., of Kyoto University in Japan. When announcing the honor, the Nobel Assembly of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm noted in a statement that "stimulating the ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells, this year's Nobel Prize laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy."

The prize recognizes Allison's basic science discoveries on the biology of T cells, the adaptive immune system's soldiers, and his invention of immune checkpoint blockade to treat cancer. According to MD Anderson, Allison's crucial insight was to block a protein on T cells that acts as a brake on their activation, freeing the T cells to attack cancer. He developed an antibody to block the checkpoint protein CTLA-4 and demonstrated the success of the approach in experimental models.

Allison's work led to the development of the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug which would become the first to extend the survival of patients with late-stage melanoma. Follow-up studies show 20 percent of those treated live for at least three years, with many living for 10 years and beyond, unprecedented results, according to the cancer center.

"Jim Allison's accomplishments on behalf of patients cannot be overstated," says MD Anderson president Peter WT Pisters, M.D., in a statement. "His research has led to life-saving treatments for people who otherwise would have little hope. The significance of immunotherapy as a form of cancer treatment will be felt for generations to come."

"I never dreamed my research would take the direction it has," Allison adds. "It's a great, emotional privilege to meet cancer patients who've been successfully treated with immune checkpoint blockade. They are living proof of the power of basic science, of following our urge to learn and to understand how things work."

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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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.