The new Rice Synthetic Biology Institute is part of an $82 million investment the university put toward synthetic biology, neuroengineering, and physical biology in 2018. Photo via Rice.edu

Rice University announced this month that it has officially launched the new Rice Synthetic Biology Institute.

The institute aims to strengthen the synthetic biology community across disciplines at the university, according to an announcement from Rice. It is part of an $82 million investment the university put toward synthetic biology, neuroengineering, and physical biology in 2018.

RSBI will be led by Caroline Ajo-Franklin, professor of biosciences, bioengineering, and chemical and biomolecular engineering, with support from a faculty steering committee.

Caroline Ajo-Franklin, professor of biosciences, bioengineering, and chemical and biomolecular engineering, will lead the new institute. Photo via Rice.edu

“At Rice, we have such deep expertise in synthetic biology,” Ajo-Franklin said in the announcement. “Connecting that deep expertise through this institute will lead to better science and more innovation.”

Synthetic biology is a discipline in which "researchers design living systems with new properties to address societal needs," according to Rice, with applications in medicine, manufacturing and environmental sustainability.

The university says that there are currently 18 faculty and more than 100 students and postdoctoral scholars at Rice working in this field within the schools of engineering and natural sciences.

The institute will initially focus on four research themes:

  1. Controlling the biological synthesis and patterning of proteins and cells into living materials that self-replicate and self-repair across a range of length scales
  2. Understanding cells as natural sensors and repurposing them into living therapeutics to detect and treat diseases, maintain health and prevent infections
  3. Developing living electronics to convert biochemical information into information-dense electronic signals in real-time at the cell-material interface
  4. Supporting cross-cutting scholarship aimed at accelerating the Design-Build-Test-Learn cycle and understanding the ethical, legal and social implications of translating these technologies into the public domain.

“Rice University is an amazing place to learn, teach, research and innovate,” Ramamoorthy Ramesh, executive vice president for research, added. “The Rice Synthetic Biology Institute will ensure that our researchers are recognized on the international stage for the life-changing work they are doing in Houston and around the world.”

Last year, Rice also launched the new Center for Human Performance with Houston Methodist inside Rice’s Tudor Fieldhouse. The interdisciplinary space aims to advance the study of exercise physiology, injury prevention, and rehabilitation while serving Rice student-athletes.

The university also unveiled another massive, collaborative space this academic year: The 250,000-square-foot Ralph S. O’Connor Building for Engineering and Science. Click here to read more about the state-of-the-art building.

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to outline Houston's opportunities in synthetic biology and biomanufacturing. Photo courtesy

Investor advocates now is the time to position Houston as a leading biomanufacturing hub

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Houston has all the ingredients to be a successful synthetic biology hub, says Veronica Wu. She believes so strongly in this that she relocated to Houston from Silicon Valley just over a year ago to start a venture capital firm dedicated to the field. Since then, she's doubled down on her passion for Houston leading in biotech — especially when it comes to one uniquely Houston opportunity: biomanufacturing.

While Houston's health care innovation scene is actively deploying synthetic biology applications, Wu points to Houston-based Solugen, a plant-based chemical producer, as an example of what Houston has to offer at-scale industrial biomanufacturing. Houston has the workforce and the physical space available for more of these types of biomanufacturing plants, which have a huge potential to move the needle on reducing carbon emissions.

"This is really fundamental technology that's going to change the paradigm and whole dialogue of how we are making a significant impact in reducing a carbon footprint and improving sustainability," says Wu, founder and managing partner of First Bight Ventures, on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Several aspects — government funding, corporate interest, advances in technology — have converged to make it an ideal time for synthetic biology innovators and investors, Wu explains on the show, and she has an idea of what Houston needs to secure its spot as a leader in the space: The BioWell.

First introduced at a Houston Tech Rodeo event at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory, The BioWell is a public-private partnership that aims to provide access to pilot and lab space, mentorship and programming, and more support that biomanufacturing innovators critically need.

"The way we envision The BioWell is it will provide a holistic, curated support for startups to be able to get across the Valley of Death," Wu says, explaining that startups transitioning from research and development into commercialization need extra support. The BioWell will provide that, as well as allow more engagement from corporations, investors, and other players.

Now that her plans for The BioWell have been announced, Wu is looking for those who want to be a part of it.

She shares more about her mission and what's next for First Bight Ventures on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

San Diego-based rBIO moved to Houston to take advantage of the growing ecosystem of biomanufacturing and synthetic biology. Photo via Getty Images

California-founded biotech startup relocates to join Houston's emerging bioeconomy

new to hou

Cameron Owen had an idea for a synthetic biology application, and he pitched it to a handful of postdoctoral programs. When he received the feedback that he didn't have enough research experience, he decided to launch a startup based in San Diego around his idea. He figured that he'd either get the experience he needed to re-apply, or he'd create a viable company.

After three years of research and development, Owen's path seems to have taken him down the latter of those two options, and he moved his viable company, rBIO, to Houston — a twist he didn't see coming.

“Houston was not on my radar until about a year and a half ago,” Owen says, explaining that he thought of Houston as a leading health care hub, but the coasts still had an edge when it came to what he was doing. “San Diego and the Boston area are the two big biotech and life science hubs.”

But when he visited the Bayou City in December of 2021, he says he saw first hand that something new was happening.

“Companies from California like us and the coastal areas were converging here in Houston and creating this new type of bioeconomy,” he tells InnovationMap.

Owen moved to Houston last year, but rBIO still has an academic partner in Washington University in St. Louis and a clinical research organization it's working with too, so he admits rBIO's local footprint is relatively small — but not for long.

"When we look to want to get into manufacturing, we definitely want to build something here in Houston," he says. "We’re just not to that point as a company."

In terms of the stage rBIO is in now, Owen says the company is coming out of R&D and into clinical studies. He says rBIO has plans to fundraise and is meeting with potential partners that will help his company scale and build out a facility.

With the help of its CRO partner, rBIO has two ongoing clinical projects — with a third coming next month. Owen says right now rBIO is targeting the pharmaceutical industry’s biologics sector — these are drugs our bodies make naturally, like insulin. About 12 percent of the population in the United States has diabetes, which translates to almost 40 million people. The demand for insulin is high, and rBIO has a way to create it — and at 30 percent less cost.

This is just the tip of the iceberg — the world of synthetic biology application is endless.

“Now that we can design and manipulate biology in ways we’ve never been able to before,” Owen says, "we’re really only limited by our own imagination.”

Synthetic biology is a field of science that involves programing biology to create and redesign natural elements. While it sounds like science fiction, Owen compares it to any other type of technology.

“Biology really is a type of software,” he says. “Phones and computers at their core run on 1s and 0s. In biology, it’s kind of the same thing, but instead of two letters, it’s four — A, C, T, and G.”

“The cool thing about biology is the software builds the hardware,” he continues. “You put that code in there and the biology builds in and of itself.”

Owen says the industry of synthetic biology has been rising in popularity for years, but the technology has only recently caught up.

“We’re exploring a brave new world — there’s no doubt about that,” Owen says.

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, recently announced new team members and her hopes for making Houston a leader in synthetic biology. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Houston synthetic biology VC grows team ahead of foundry launch

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Since launching earlier this year, a Houston-based venture capital firm dedicated to investing in synthetic biology companies has made some big moves.

First Bight Ventures, founded by Veronica Wu, announced its growing team and plans to stand up a foundry and accelerator for its portfolio companies and other synthetic biology startups in Houston. The firm hopes to make Houston an international leader in synthetic biology.

“We have a moment in time where we can make Houston the global epicenter of synthetic biology and the bio economy," Wu says to a group of stakeholders last week at First Bight's Rocketing into the Bioeconomy event. "Whether its energy, semiconductor, space exploration, or winning the World Series — Houstonians lead. It’s in our DNA. While others look to the stars, we launch people into space.”

At First Bight's event, Wu introduced the company's new team members. Angela Wilkins, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University, joined First Bight as partner, and Serafina Lalany, former executive director of Houston Exponential, was named entrepreneur in residence. Carlos Estrada, who has held leadership positions within WeWork in Houston, also joins the team as entrepreneur in residence and will oversee the company's foundry and accelerator that will be established to support synthetic biology startups, Wu says.

“First Bight is investing to bring the best and the brightest — and most promising — synthetic biology startups from around the country to Houston," Wu continues.

First Bighthas one seed-staged company announced in its portfolio. San Diego-based Persephone Biosciences was founded in 2017 by synthetic and metabolic engineering pioneers, Stephanie Culler and Steve Van Dien. The company is working on developing microbial products that impact patient and infant health.

Wu, who worked at Apple before the launch of the iPhone and Tesla before Elon Musk was a household name, says she saw what was happening in Houston after her brother moved to town. She first invested in Houston's synthetic biology ecosystem when she contributed to one of Solugen's fundraising rounds. The alternative plastics company is now a unicorn valued at over $1 billion.

“I founded First Bight because of what I see is the next great wave of technology innovation," she says at the event. "I founded it in Houston because the pieces are right here.”

Veronica Wu, who moved to Houston from Silicon Valley last year, has launched a new venture capital firm to help accelerate synthetic biology startups. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Former Apple exec starts Houston-based VC firm focused on synthetic biology

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Calling all startups with synthetic biology solutions — there's a new venture capital firm looking to invest in you.

Veronica Wu has announced the launch of First Bight Ventures, a new VC firm focused exclusively on early-stage synthetic biology startups.

“Synthetic Biology aims to take parts of natural biology systems to produce organisms/cells/biological systems with novel or enhanced characteristics. It sits at the convergence of technology and biology, and provides us a powerful tool to address some of the biggest challenges humanity faces, like cancer/incurable diseases, sustainability and climate change," Wu says in a news release.

Wu has over 20 years of experience in managerial positions at tech companies like Apple, Tesla, and Motorola, and she served as a founding team member of McKinsey & Company’s Greater China office's business technology practice.

As an investor, Wu has funded 300 early-stage tech companies in the past six years. She's seen her portfolio companies reach major accomplishments, including 34 unicorns, six SPACs, and four IPOs to date, per the release.

She's betting on synthetic biology by launching First Bight Ventures — the first and only VC firm completely devoted to this field. The firm has already struck up a partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks, a leading synthetic biology platform provider.

"The potential applications are far reaching in scope as well as impact.” Wu says. “Presently, we stand at a significant inflection point. Synthetic Biology is to 2022 what the ‘.com’ era was to the 90s.”

Wu is a relative newcomer to Houston. She made the move from Silicon Valley to the Bayou City in the middle of 2021. She plans to leverage Houston's market to incubate these startups locally, according to the release.

“Houston is well positioned to become a major center for synthetic biology with its existing talent, industries, and capital," she says.

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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

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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

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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.