This year, seven of the 10 most-promising life science companies are based in Houston. Photo courtesy of Rice Alliance

Rice University played host this week to the 12th annual Texas Life Science Forum, where life science leaders and startup founders could network, learn and present pitches on their solutions to a wide array of health-related issues.

Hosted by Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship and BioHouston on November 7, the event brought together more than 600 attendees for a series of keynote speakers and panels. This year, 45 early-stage therapeutic, diagnostic, medical device and digital health companies—many of which are based in Houston—also pitched their concepts.

Fort Worth-based AyuVis Research walked away from the event with the two top recognitions: The Michael E. DeBakey Memorial Life Science Award and the People's Choice Award. The company, which has developed a small molecule immunotherapy targeting bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) in preterm neonates and other respiratory disorders. The company is raising a $20 million Series A round to support its clinical development and is slated to pitch at IGNITE Health’s Fire Pitch 2023 today, November 9, at the Ion.

Each year the Rice Alliance and BioHouston also name its 10 most promising life science companies, selected by investors—seven out of 10 of which are based in Houston. This year's selection included the following companies, in alphabetical order:

  • 7 Hills Pharma: This Houston-based clinical stage immunotherapy company has developed the concept of allosteric activation of integrins to facilitate cell adhesion and promote immune responses. The concept has uses in preventing infection and cancer, and increasing the effectiveness of oncology drugs and infectious disease vaccines.
  • Bairitone Health: This Houston-based company is building a scalable diagnostic system for sleep apnea anatomy utilizing home-use wearable, passive Sonar technology and AI techniques.
  • Diakonos Oncology: Also based in Houston, Diakonos' Dendritic Cell Vaccine was awarded the FDA’s Fast Track designation. The clinical-stage biotech company's immunotherapies have shown early successes for hard-to-reach, aggressive cancers like Glioblastoma Multiforme.
  • Mongoose Bio: With more than 20 years of research, Mongoose specializes in T cell-based therapies for diverse solid tumors TCR-based therapies in cancer patients. The Houston-based company has developed an immunopeptidome discovery platform for TCR-based therapies in cancer patients.
  • Nandi Life Sciences: Nandi is developing antibodies for Avastin-resistant ovarian cancer, with
  • further application in breast, colorectal and lung cancer. The company is based out of Texas Medical Center Innovation.
  • NKILT Therapeutics: This Houston-based company's seed-stage cell therapy has applications in solid tumors, such as colorectal cancer, ovarian cancer, clear cell renal carcinoma, endometrial
  • cancer and more. It is developing a novel and proprietary Chimeric ILT-Receptor.
  • NuVision Biotherapies: Based in the United Kingdom, NuVision has developed and proven a treatment for dry eye disease. It's known for its Omnigen and OmniLenz products and is raising a series A to scale, take the business to profitability and exit.
  • Panakeia Technologies: Also based in the UK, Panakeia has developed an AI-based software that can provide multi-omic biomarkers in minutes. Currently this process takes days or weeks. It's RuO platform can identify 4,500 known multi-omics cancer markers.
  • Taurus Vascular: A recent spin-out of the Texas Medical Center Innovation Biodesign program, Taurus is developing a novel, catheter-based solution for treating endoleaks, which can be related to aortic aneurysms.
  • YAP Therapeutics: The only California-based company to make the cut, this preclinical-stage biotech develops genetic medicines that leverage the company’s tissue renewal and regeneration platform to reverse and cure severe diseases, including heart failure, pulmonary diseases, retinal degeneration and hearing loss.

Last year, Bairitone Health took home the DeBakey and People's Choice awards.

InformAI has three AI-based products geared at improving health care. Photo via Getty Images

Fresh off grant, Houston health tech company's AI aims to revolutionize diagnostics, care

data-driven

In Houston, we’re lucky to have top-tier doctors in the Texas Medical Center, ready to treat us with the newest technology. But what about our family members who have to rely on rural hospitals? Thanks to one Houston company, doctors in smaller community hospitals may soon have new tools at their disposal that could improve outcomes for patients around the world.

Since InnovationMap last caught up with Jim Havelka, CEO of InformAI, two years ago, that hope has come far closer to a reality. InformAI is a VC-backed digital health company. Part of JLABS @ TMC innovation facilities, the company uses artificial intelligence to develop both diagnostic tools and clinical outcome predictors. And two of the company’s products will undergo FDA regulatory testing this year.

SinusAI, which helps to detect sinus-related diseases in CT scans, received its CE Mark — the European equivalent of FDA approval — last year and is being sold across the Atlantic today, says Havelka. He adds that in the United States alone, there are roughly 700,000 sinus surgeries that the product is positioned to support.

Another product, RadOnc-AI, is designed to help doctors prescribe radiation dose plans for head and neck cancers.

“Ideally the perfect plan would be to provide radiation to the tumor and nothing around it,” says Havelka. “We’ve built a product, RadOnc-AI, which autogenerates the dose treatment plan based on medical images of that patient.”

It can be an hours-long process for doctors to figure out the path and dose of radiation themselves, but the new product “can build that initial pass in about five minutes,” Havelka says.

That in itself is an exciting development, but because this technology was developed using the expertise of some of the world’s top oncologists, “the first pass plan is in line with what [patients would] get at tier-one institutions,” explains Havelka. This creates “tremendous equity” among patients who can afford to travel to major facilities and those that can’t.

To that end, RadOnc-AI was recently awarded a $1.55 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, a state agency that funds cancer research. The Radiological Society of North America announced late last year that InformAI was named an Aunt Minnie Best of Radiology Finalist.

“It’s quite prestigious for our company,” says Havelka. Other recent laurels include InformAI being named one of the 10 most promising companies by the Texas Life Science Forum in November.

And InformAI is only gaining steam. A third product is earlier in its stage of development. TransplantAI will optimize donor organ and patient recipient matches.

“A lot of organs are harvested and discarded,” Havelka says.

His AI product has been trained on a million donor transplants to help determine who is the best recipient for an organ. It even takes urgency into account, based on a patient’s expected mortality within 90 days. The product is currently a fully functional prototype and will soon move through its initial regulatory clearances.

The company — currently backed by three VC funds, including DEFTA Partners, Delight Ventures, and Joyance Partners — is planning to do another seed round in Q2 of 2023.

“We’ve been able to get recognized for digital health products that can be taken to market globally,” says Havelka.

But what he says he’s most excited about is the social impact of his products. With more money raised, InformAI will be able to speed up development of additional products, including expanding the cancers that the company will be targeting. And with that, more and more patients will one day be treated with the highest level of care.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.