The grant will create a new Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub, known as REACH, in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

The National Institute of Health has awarded a $4 million grant to a Houston-area initiative in the name of sparking biomedical activity.

The grant will create a new Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub, known as REACH, in Houston. The team behind the Gulf Coast Consortium — one of the world’s largest inter-institutional cooperatives, which includes eight of Houston’s medical research leading lights — has been hard at work to bring REACH-GCC to fruition.

The result? A multidisciplinary means of promoting biomedical entrepreneurship, bringing innovators from concept to commercialization.

“I can tell you that a lot of those potential users came out of our research consortium. Those users span from a focus on mental health to antibiotic resistance to regenerative medicine to pain management to, of course, cancer,” says Suzanne Tomlinson of Rice University.

Tomlinson is the director of GCC research programs and worked with Stan Watowich of The University of Texas Medical Branch to create the grant. Peter Davies helped to submit it through Texas A&M University.

One of the dozen research and educational programs that Tomlinson directs is the Innovative Drug Discovery and Development Consortium.

“Within that, we have established a wide network of drug to drug discovery and development cores,” she says.

The vast majority of those are funded by CPRIT (Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas), and Tomlinson and Watowich (the chair of IDDD’s steering committee) were lead developers and authors of the grant to create TMCi’s Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics (ACT). That accelerator is a model for what GCC-REACH may do for taking other innovations from discovery to market.

“We get close to a billion dollars in research monies a year coming into the Medical Center. The question is, ‘Are we seeing a lot of those dollars resulting in products that benefit patients?’ And the answer always is, ‘We can do better,’” says Watowich.

How will GCC-REACH help to do that? By combining the forces of all eight full members of the GCC, plus outside help when it’s needed. Watowich sets for the example of a budding entrepreneur at his home institution, UTMB. That researcher could potentially receive guidance from an MD Anderson expert in immunotherapies or a Rice scientist who focuses on nanotechnology delivery systems.

“This grant is designed to put together a bespoke team of whatever is needed to have a discussion with and figure out what's the market for this technology. How might it get there?’” says Watowich.

Those options could include setting up a startup company, but could also mean licensing the idea to someone else, whether it’s a company or an institution.

“Our goal is, we help each other. We help ourselves. We help the patient population. And we do that through working together,” he continues.

Though it sounds like GCC-REACH could be a competitor to other accelerators, Watowich doesn’t see it that way. He sees the new hub as working with very early-stage creators who may still take part in those existing accelerators in the future. And the team hopes to do so quickly. The goal is to launch this month. Watowich says that the plan is to use the NIH’s $4 million to launch around 60 early stage biomedical companies over the next four years.

A variety of nascent founders — regardless of their type of innovative solution — will take part in the initiative.

“It can be a device, it could be an AI, it could be an app, it could be digital health, it could be therapeutics,” says Watowich. “We have experts across all of these areas that could help provide guidance and mentoring to try to move those companies forward.”

With the Texas Medical Center in their backyard, these Houston biotech companies are creating breakthrough technologies. Getty Images

5 Houston biotech companies taking health care to new levels

The future is now

Houston is the home of the largest medical center in the world, so it comes as no surprise that the Bayou City is also home to breakthrough technologies. Here are five Houston companies developing some of this biotech advancements.

Moleculin Biotech Inc.

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

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. Read the full story here.

Cavu Biotherapies

Dr. Colleen O'Connor has adapted immunotherapy treatments to be used in dogs. Courtesy of CAVU Biotherapies

Breakthrough biotech doesn't have to just be for humans. More than three years after its founding, Houston-based veterinary biotech company CAVU Biotherapies' had its first cancer patient: a black Labrador in Pennsylvania diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma.

Dr. Colleen O'Connor, CEO and founder of CAVU Biotherapies, established the company in July 2015 with a goal to help pets live longer post-cancer diagnoses. O'Connor, who earned a PhD in toxicology with a specialty in immunology, has more than a decade of hands-on experience researching cancer treatments.

"Our goal is to scale up and be able to increase our dogs' qualities of life with us," O'Connor said. "We want to keep families intact longer and we want to be able to modernize cancer care for our animals." Read the full story here.

Innovative Biochips

iBiochips, led by founder Lidong Qin, was awarded a $1.5 million grant in September to help develop a new technology that delivers data about the cell's genetic makeup and reports abnormalities. Courtesy of Lidong Qin

Innovative Biochips, a Houston-based biotechnology company, is one step closer to commercializing technology that the company hopes will provide an opportunity for researchers to detect diseases earlier.

The company was founded three years ago by Dr. Lidong Qin, a professor at the Houston Methodist Research Institute's department of nanomedicine. He launched iBiochips as an independent faculty startup that licensed technology from Houston Methodist. Qin says he wanted to engineer and manufacture devices that focus on revolutionizing single-cell isolation and genetic analysis. Read the full story here.

Celltex

Celltex's stem cell technology has received positive results from its multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, and rheumatoid arthritis patients. Courtesy of Celltex

A Houston stem cell company is making strides in regenerative medicine. Celltex's treatment has been proved effective with its patients. Eighty-three percent of multiple sclerosis patients have reported improvement of symptoms specific to their disease, as have 73 percent of Parkinson's sufferers. But the staggering fact is that 100 percent of 58 respondents with rheumatoid arthritis say they have benefited.

David Eller, chairman, co-founder and CEO of the company, also recently announced the company's expansion to Saudi Arabia. Read the full story here.

Ridgeline Therapeutics

Houston-based Ridgeline Therapeutics isn't going to allow you beat aging, but someday it may well help you to live without muscle loss or diabetes. Getty Images

Stan Watowich pictures a world where elderly people have the same healthy muscles they had at a younger age. Watowich is CEO of Ridgeline Therapeutics, a spin-off company of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston where he is an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and he wants to make it clear that he is not going to cure aging.

"You and I are still going to get old," he says. "But we have our hopes that as we get old our muscles will stay healthy."

He's talking about the drug candidate, RLT-72484. It has been shown to reactivate muscle stem cells and regenerate skeletal muscle in aged laboratory mice. Read the full story here.


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$1M donation to Rice establishes pioneering neuro-policy center in Houston

brainy support

A big donation to Rice University will soon help researchers better understand the workings of the human brain.

Harry Yan and Weiman Gao have bestowed $1 million on the Baker Institute of Public Policy to establish the interdisciplinary Neuro-Policy Program.

Neuro-policy is a newer field that explores how brain health and function can help to fuel economic growth.

“The Neuro-Policy Program is at the forefront of pioneering data analysis, empirical research and policy application,” says Harris Eyre, the lead for the program, as well as a senior fellow in brain health at the Baker Institute, in a news release. “Investing in evidence-based strategies for prevention, diagnosis and treatment can reduce brain and mental health disparities, optimize cognitive development and performance and foster innovation to build more resilient communities.”

Eyre describes the collective value of the human brain as “brain capital.” That’s because brains that are suffering from any number of neurodegenerative or mental health disorders (including depression, anxiety, brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease) have actually taken a toll on the U.S. economy, Eyre explains.

The Neuro-Policy Program seeks to improve brain performance, and consequently enhance economic growth, national security, and our overall standing as a nation of healthy brains. The program’s primary projects include establishing a task force to advise Texas “brain and mind” legislative efforts as well as a Texas Brain Capital Dashboard, collaborating on Texas Forward (Texas Brain Health Plan) with the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth, thereby working toward U.S. brain capital policy and investment advances. These projects are expected to yield deliverables as early as 2026.

“The Neuro-Policy Program aims to leverage the university’s proximity to the Texas Medical Center and the institute’s strong connections to state and federal policymakers. This is an important yet underrepresented area of research that Houston is poised to lead,” says David Satterfield, the director of the Baker Institute.

Yan and Gao said in a press release that they were inspired to gift the grant funds to Eyre and his research after attending a March 28 Baker Institute event on brain health that featured U.S. Rep. Morgan Luttrell, a co-chair of the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus.

"We are honored to support Dr. Harris Eyre and the Neuro-Policy program he leads. Dr. Eyre’s work has greatly impressed us, highlighting the critical importance of brain health in our society today,” say Yan and Gao. “We hope our contribution can inspire further support and advocacy in the field, helping individuals lead healthier lives through a comprehensive approach to prevention.”

Houston HR software startup rolls out platform at local hospital system

tapping into tech

More than 14,000 nurses at one of the largest nonprofit health care providers in Texas have access to a new skills and competency management software.

Kahuna Workforce Solutions has officially deployed its platform at Memorial Hermann Health System, consisting of 17 hospitals and more than 250 care delivery sites. The platform will streamline onboarding processes and increase transparency and accessibility for staff.

“Kahuna will enhance our clinical competency experience and fully aligns with our nursing strategy to optimize our processes, prioritize innovation and safety, and excel as a top provider of care and clinical advancement for clinicians,” Bryan Sisk, senior vice president and chief nursing executive for Memorial Hermann, says in a news release.

“Memorial Hermann is committed to the Houston community and helping to develop the next generation of nurses,” Sisk continues. “The Kahuna platform will help improve the transparency, autonomy and efficiency of our competency management and development processes for our nurses to better support them in their roles, while also ensuring we provide high-quality care for our patients.”

The rollout comes six months after the software-as-a-service company raised a $21 million series B round of funding.

“We are thrilled to work with Memorial Hermann as they enrich all aspects of their clinical competency management practices with Kahuna’s skills management software,” adds Jai Shah, CEO of Kahuna Workforce Solutions. “This collaboration unites two Houston-based organizations and demonstrates a joint commitment to enhancing the standard of health care through digitized competency management in our Houston community and far beyond.”