The Downtown Launch Pad will house accelerator programs MassChallenge and gener8tor and coworking space from The Cannon. Photo courtesy of Downtown Launch Pa

The Cannon Houston, a startup incubator and coworking space, and Houston-based Amegy Bank announced a partnership to create a 17,000-square-foot innovation space in downtown.

The Downtown Launch Pad is expected to open on a few floors of the Amegy Bank building at 1801 Main St. in the spring. Along with coworking space, the new hub will house MassChallenge Texas, which had its inaugural cohort earlier this year, and gener8tor, an early acceleration program announced in last month.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the project at Central Houston Inc.'s annual meeting on October 24. Both the accelerators that will be in the new hub received a combined combined $4 million in economic development grants from the Downtown Redevelopment Authority to be distributed over the next five years.

"Central Houston and the Downtown Redevelopment Authority are committed to establishing Downtown Houston as a nexus for innovation and a leader in urban entrepreneurship," says Bob Eury, president of both entities, in a news release. "We've found strong, strategic partners in Amegy Bank and The Cannon, both of which are committed to fostering and sustaining a vibrant innovation culture in Houston, from startup to production."

Amegy Bank has tapped Gensler for the redesign. The 13th floor of the building will house the coworking space powered by The Cannon. This space is expected to open before the end of the year.

"We originally created The Cannon to be the missing piece in Houston's startup ecosystem," says Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon and Cannon Ventures. Gow is the son of David Gow, owner of InnovationMap's parent company, Gow Media. "Through the Cannon Tower and The Downtown Launch Pad, we are excited to join up with Central Houston, the Downtown Redevelopment Authority and Amegy Bank to create an entire 'vertical village' of innovation—a system of floors at Amegy on Main that will provide Houston's entrepreneurs with all the programs and resources they need to thrive."

The building's 10th and 11th floors will also be a part of the Downtown Launch Pad. The 10th floor will house the two accelerators, and the 11th floor will be a dedicated event space. The lobby of the building will be a common space for all members of the Cannon Tower and will have meeting rooms, a game room, work stations, a coffee bar, and a deli.

"Amegy Bank has a long history of reinvesting in the local community and supporting Texas families and businesses," says Kelly Foreman, senior vice president and corporate real estate and facilities manager for Amegy. "Now, through our partnerships with The Cannon and The Launch Pad, we are taking our commitment to small businesses to the next level by converting a part of Amegy on Main into a hub for emerging technology and start-up companies that aligns all the players across the entrepreneurial spectrum—corporations, mentors, investors, service providers and the startups themselves. This combination of offerings and capabilities will unlock significant value for Downtown, helping to attract and retain companies from not only Houston, but from around the country."

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Houston immuno-oncology company reaches next FDA milestone, heads to phase 2 trial

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A Houston immuno-oncology company has recently made major headway with the FDA, including both a fast track and an orphan drug designation. It will soon start a phase 2 trial of its promising cancer fighting innovation.

Diakonos Oncology was born in 2016, the brainchild of Baylor researchers already hard at work in the realm of dendritic cell vaccines. Drs. Will Decker, Matt Halpert, and Vanaja Konduri partnered with Dan Faust, a Houston businessman and pharmacist, to bring their treatment to the public, says COO Jay Hartenbach.

The name Diakonos means “deacon or servant in Greek,” he explains. “A lot of companies end up focusing on treating a specific disease or cancer and what you end up having is a significant amount of potential but with a lot of tradeoffs and downsides. And so our goal is we need to eliminate the cancer but we can't harm or dramatically malign the patient in doing so.”

How do they do that? Because the therapy catalyzes a natural immune response, it’s the patient’s own body that’s fighting the cancer. Hartenbach credits Decker with the idea of educating dendritic cells to attack cancer, in this case, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), one of the most aggressive cancers with which doctors and patients are forced to tangle.

“Our bodies are already very good at responding very quickly and aggressively to what it perceives as virally infected cells. And so what Dr. Decker did was basically trick the immune system by infecting these dendritic cells with the cancer specific protein and mRNA,” details Hartenbach.

Jay Hartenbach is the COO of Diakonos Oncology. Photo courtesy of Diakonos Oncology

But GBM isn’t the only cancer on which Diakonos Oncology has its sights set. Other notably stubborn-to-treat cancers that they’re working on include pancreatic cancer and angiosarcoma. The scientists are focused on meeting unmet medical needs, but also realize that treating such cancers would allow for the fastest determination of whether or not the treatment was effective.

The fast track designation, originally received last fall, means that the drug approval time for DOC1021, Diakonos’ glioblastoma vaccine, will be only six months. But Hartenbach highlights an additional boon, the fact that the special designation also allows for more frequent communications with the FDA.

“That’s very helpful for us, right as we're contemplating how to design the upcoming trials. From a business standpoint, it also is incredibly helpful because it provides a third party validation of what we're doing and the results that we're seeing,” he says.

What they’re seeing includes the survival of 13 out of 16 patients from the initial October 2021 enrollment. The three patients who passed away received the lowest dose of DOC1021. Hartenbach says that the remaining patients are thriving, with no serious adverse effects. With a median survival rate of 15 to 21 months, it’s hard to understate the significance of these patients’ success.

Diakonos Oncology is headquartered in Houston, with a staff of 10 in Space City and an additional eight distributed employees. Hartenbach says that the company’s hometown has been instrumental in its success. He mentions that the robust innovation of the Texas Medical Center meant that as the company has grown, there has never been a motivation to leave Houston.

“You're having a lot of both investment and companies actually moving to Houston,” Hartenbach says. “So we’ve been fortunate to have started there. There are bigger traditional biotech hubs, San Diego, Boston, and San Francisco, but Houston really is now putting itself on the map and it's getting a lot of attention.”

One of the companies responsible for that improved reputation? Diakonos Oncology and its promising approach to aggressive cancers.

Houston professor earns competitive NSF award, nearly $700,000 grant

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An assistant professor at Rice University has won one of the highly competitive National Science Foundation's CAREER Awards.

The award grants $670,406 over five years to Amanda Marciel, the William Marsh Rice Trustee Chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering, to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched, according to a statement from Rice. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

“My goal is to create a new paradigm for designing elastomers,” Marciel said in a statement. “The research has four aims: to determine the role of comb polymer topology in forming elastomers, understanding the effects of that topology on elastomer mechanics, characterizing its effects on elastomer structure and increasing the intellectual diversity in soft matter research.”

Marciel, who joined the faculty at Rice in 2019, is one of about 500 researchers to receive the NSF's CAREER Award each year. The award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF.

In addition to supporting Marciel's research, the funds will also go toward creating opportunities in soft matter research for undergraduates and underrepresented scientists. It will establish a new annual symposium called the Texas Soft Matter Meeting, where community college teachers can participate in a soft matter laboratory module and students in the Research Experiences for Undergrads program at Rice will present their summer research.

Recently, Rice also launched the new Rice Synthetic Biology Institute, which aims to strengthen the synthetic biology community across disciplines at the university. It is part of an $82 million investment the university put toward synthetic biology, neuroengineering and physical biology in 2018.

A fellow team or Rice researcher is also working on wearable haptic accessories. A member of the team was recently named to the 2024 cohort of Rice Innovation Fellows. Click here to learn more.