Enrique Gomez joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Houston as an oncology innovation hub. Photo via TMC.edu

Houston is currently establishing itself as a hub for health care innovation — and Enrique Gomez should know. He's worked in the field of biopharmaceuticals across the continent.

As entrepreneur in residence at Texas Medical Center Innovation's Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics, he works with early stage startups and researchers. However, for decades he's worked in a much later stage of drug development, holding leadership positions at Takada in Latin America and Shire in Boston.

"Texas is very well recognized for cancer therapeutics," Gomez says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There's a lot of research going on. These researchers are looking at every angle — every possible strategy to tackle cancer."

At ACT, Gomez connects the startups or instigators with the resources they need to get their life-saving solutions to market. With cancer, there's not one thing that's going to work. There have to be options for treating cancer.

"Cancer is very heterogeneous. Not one strategy will be the single silver bullet to overcome the disease," Gomez says. "We are talking about personalized medicine. Every person is different and every cancer in every patient is different. It will require a number of approaches to overcome the health situation."

Thankfully, through TMC's ACT and the numerous research institutions working on the future of oncology, Houston's a great spot to move that needle.

"Houston is a place where everyone looks at when it comes to novel research and approaches to treating cancer," Gomez says. "The landscape here is going to be accelerated because we see much more collaboration between the founding institutions — and that's a very important element of growth. Houston has no comparison to any other place in terms of what's going on here and the level and quality of research."

He shares more on how COVID-19 has affected drug development and research — as well as what's next for his own career — on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Optellum, based in the TMC Innovation Institute, has entered into a partnership with Johnson & Johnson. Photo via Getty Images

AI-optimized health startup with HQ in Houston takes its tech to the next level with new partner

ending cancer

Optellum, a startup whose technology helps doctors detect and treat lung cancer, has teamed up with one of the world's health care giants to broaden the software's reach.

On August 18, Optellum — whose U.S. headquarters is at Houston's TMC Innovation Institute — unveiled its new collaboration with the Lung Care Initiative at Johnson & Johnson, which racked up global sales of $82.6 billion last year. Optellum's key contribution to the partnership is its AI-powered software that aids medical professionals in detecting and treating patients with lung cancer.

With Optellum's AI-powered lung cancer diagnostics now being included in J&J's Lung Cancer Initiative, medical teams soon will enjoy access to an array of complementary technologies designed to improve diagnosis and treatment of early stage cancer. The Lung Cancer Initiative, launched in 2018 by J&J and Boston University, aims to prevent, detect, and cure lung cancer.

Lung cancer ranks as the world's most common type of cancer and leading cause of cancer deaths. About 1.8 million people around the world die from lung cancer each year. The current five-year survival rate is just 20 percent, primarily due to most patients being diagnosed after the disease has reached an advanced stage.

Optellum's Virtual Nodule Clinic software received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in March. Hospitals in the U.S. are rolling out the technology, with Asia-Pacific and European hospitals on track to eventually adopt the software.

The Optellum platform identifies and tracks at-risk patients, and assigns a "lung cancer prediction" score to lung nodules — small lesions, frequently detected in chest CT scans, that may or may not be cancerous.

"Optellum's vision is to redefine the early intervention of lung cancer by enabling every patient to be diagnosed and treated at the earliest possible stage, when the chances of cure are highest," the United Kingdom-based company says in a news release.

The startup — a 2019 graduate of the Texas Medical Center's accelerator — hopes to apply the technology to other lung diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Optellum recently was named one of the 101 best medical device startups in the United Kingdom. In June, the startup was among 38 AI projects chosen by the UK Department of Health and Social Care to participate in a roughly $50 million health care initiative.

Václav Potěšil, founder and CEO of Optellum, says the Johnson & Johnson collaboration represents a "significant milestone" for his company.

The J&J partnership "brings us one step closer to Optellum's vision of redefining early lung cancer treatment by helping every clinician in every hospital to make the right decisions and provide their patients the best chance to fight back," Potěšil says.

Of the 35 people employed by Optellum, three are based in the U.S. and the rest in the United Kingdom. The company's team also includes several part-time consultants, most of whom are based in the U.S. By the end of this year, Optellum plans to expand its U.S. team with several full-time hires, including a senior executive located in Houston.

Beginning next year in Houston, Optellum expects its technology to be available for patients in clinical settings.

For Potěšil, Optellum's mission is personal. He lost an aunt to lung cancer within a year of her Stage 4 diagnosis.

"I've seen firsthand how very healthy people can be killed, and it's still the most common and deadliest cancer worldwide," Potěšil is quoted as saying by the Texas Medical Center. "We are really focused on enabling cancer patients to be diagnosed at the earliest possible stage and be cured. It's not just the modeled data on the computer. It's addressing the right clinical problems to add value to doctors."

Through a series B round and a federal grant, BiVACOR has raised $22 million in funding ahead of human trials. Photo via bivacor.com

Houston-based artificial heart company snags $22M in fresh funds

money moves

Houston-based medtech company BiVACOR has picked up $22 million in funding — in the form of a series B round and a federal grant — to propel development of its Total Artificial Heart device for treatment of severe heart failure.

In a May 19 news release, BiVACOR says it received a series B round of $19 million and a National Institutes of Health grant of $3 million. Boston-based Cormorant Asset Management and Australia's OneVentures, through its OneVentures Healthcare Fund III, led the round.

OneVentures first invested in BiVACOR three years ago. According to Australia's Financial Review, OneVentures initially pumped $3 million (Australian dollars) into BiVACOR, with the potential of contributing as much as $10 million if BiVACOR met certain milestones. BiVACOR received a round of seed funding from U.S. investors in 2013.

"BiVACOR's one-of-a-kind technology is supported by a remarkable team that has moved this technology a significant distance toward the clinic," Paul Kelly, managing partner of OneVentures, says in BiVACOR's news release.

The fresh cash will support preparation for the first human trials of the device. As a short-term measure, the device can be implanted in someone awaiting a heart transplant. It's also designed to be a long-term alternative to a heart transplant.

The BiVACOR device, billed as the first long-term therapy for patients with severe heart failure, is an implantable artificial heart based on rotary blood-pump technology. Similar in size to an adult fist, it is small enough to be implanted in many women and some children yet capable of delivering enough cardiac power to a man who's exercising. Unlike the two-chamber human heart, BiVACOR's device features a single chamber.

"The commitment and interest from our investors validate our technology and the need for improved options to treat end-stage biventricular heart failure," says Daniel Timms, founder and CEO of BiVACOR. "With this financing, we will be able to expand our world-class team and undertake … verification activities so that we can commence our first-in-human early feasibility study in the near future."

Founded in 2008, BiVACOR maintains offices in Cerritos, California, and Brisbane, Australia. The company is affiliated with Houston's Texas Heart Institute, where the world's first artificial heart was implanted. BiVACOR's headquarters is at the Texas Medical Center complex.

The company employs about a dozen people and says the funding will enable it to bring on another 10 employees.

For 13 years, BiVACOR has been working on technology aimed at eliminating the need for heart transplants. Thus far, the BiVACOR device has been tested only on cows.

"In heart failure, the heart becomes unable to pump enough blood to keep the body healthy and strong. At least 26 million people around the world are living with the disease, and the number is rising as populations age," IEEE Spectrum reported in 2019. "Patients with severe heart failure have a bleak outlook: Their best option is a heart transplant, but the limited number of donor hearts means that only about 5,000 patients around the world receive transplants each year. Thousands more patients are eligible for transplants, and some die while waiting for a donor organ."

The Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute named 15 Texas companies to its new cancer-focused accelerator program. Photo courtesy of TMCx

TMC cancer therapeutic accelerator names inaugural cohort

cancer innovation

The Texas Medical Center named 15 groundbreaking researchers and companies to its inaugural class of the Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics on Thursday. All hail from the Lone Star State.

The ACT program is the only accelerator focused on cancer treatment at the earliest stages of commercialization, thanks to a $5 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas awarded to the TMC in the fall of 2019.

The nine-month program kicked-off at the end of January and will be run by TMC Innovation, according to a release from the TMC. It aims to provide the class with resources to help their oncology biotech projects reach new milestones, including even commercialization.

The inaugural cohort is made up of companies and researchers exploring immunotherapy, cell therapy, targeted therapy, cancer pain, and drug platforms. The group is split about evenly between companies and academic researchers. The group of Texans includes:

  • Raptamer Discovery Group
  • IDA Therapeutics
  • Elbrus Therapeutics
  • Parthenon Therapeutics
  • Lokesh Battula
  • Aumeta
  • Autoimmunity Biologic Solutions
  • Max Mamonkin
  • Qing Yi
  • Astero Alta
  • TEZCAT Laboratories
  • Anil Sood
  • Coactigon
  • Xiadong Cheng
  • IonTx

At the end of the nine months, the class will present an integrated strategic plan and at least one grant submission. They will also have the opportunity to pitch investors and corporations.

The class will also gain support in grant writing, chemistry, and funding opportunities, as well as mentorship.

"As the past year has shown, the pace of scientific discovery can be blistering," says Tom Luby, director of TMC Innovation. "At the same time, successfully translating research into effective therapies available to patients requires a mix of business, technical and regulatory skills that may not typically be available to researchers.

"By linking the participants with mentors who can both advance their scientific work and support the technical needs, we expect this first class of ACT participants will make a meaningful difference for cancer patients in Texas and beyond."

TMCx, which is also run by TMC Innovation, recently announced seven health tech companies that were selected to its 2021 class of its health tech accelerator.

Broader in scope that the ACT accelerator, the TMCx startups focus on an array of subject matters from heart health to artificial intelligence to extremity rehabilitation.

Here's how the health tech investing industry has had to rethink investing amid a global pandemic. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Overheard: Experts share advice on investing in health tech amid the pandemic

Eavesdropping online

The coronavirus pandemic has upset countless industries, but if you zoom in on health tech you'll find a mix of opportunities and challenges for both health tech startups and investors.

On a virtual panel hosted by TMC Innovation and Ignite Healthcare Network, four female investors or founders discussed the health tech startup landscape. From advice for getting the attention of investors amid COVID-19 to inequities in health care and innovation, here's what the panel covered.

“I never thought I’d make an investment without meeting the founder face-to-face and visiting their site. The way I got comfortable with it was the opportunity was referred to me — it was a warm lead.”

— Karen Kerr, lead partner at Portfolia Rising America Fund. Kerr says those warm leads are more important now than ever, as is sharing a network.

“The first thing you need to do is understand our fund — or whatever fund you’re trying to go after — and pitch in a way that’s personal. You have to stand out from the beginning.”

— Kyra Doolan, managing director of Texas Halo Fund, says on reaching out to investors. She adds that she looks for a strong team, an innovative solution, a market need, and the terms of the deal. Meanwhile, red flags include if a startup says it has no competition, has unreasonable projections, is led by entrepreneurs who think they know everything, has an unwillingness to be upfront about COVID challenges, and doesn't have enough money in the bank.

“It’s important for companies to be upfront about the problems they’re facing — we all know these problems exist. Addressing that head-on with investors is a good way to go because having trust in a company you’re investing in is important.”

— Doolan continues on the importance of transparency between startup and investor.

“I’m looking for great entrepreneurs that are high integrity people. I’m looking to see that they really understand the industries they are in.”

— Kerr says on what she looks for in a founder. She adds that she tries to understand how they think and the advantages and disadvantages of their leadership are.

“You have to have the art of persuasion. You have this dream and vision — and there may not be anything there yet — but you need to be able to take people on this journey with you.”

— Damayanti Dipayana, CEO and co-founder of Manatee, a member of TMCx's 2020 cohort. She adds, representing the entrepreneur side of the table, that you really have to know yourself and your shortcomings.

“Any investor will look at it like if you can’t get the right people around and sell it to them, how are you going to uproot an industry.”

— Dipayana expands on the importance of growing your team and being persuasive.

“I think the pandemic has certainly shone a bright light on the inequities that exists, so solutions to these challenges are interesting things to think through.”

— Kerr says adding that the first investment from the Rising America Fund was into a fintech startup that serves underbanked communities.

“We’re seeing lower valuations maybe than we would have before this because the effects of this are going to go on for a long time, I would guess. Even when COVID starts to come down, the economic downturn is still going to exist.”

— Doolan says on where investment is at amid the pandemic.

“Ultimately if you want to have real bargaining power over your valuation, find other people who are interested.”

— Dipayana adds to the conversation about valuations. "If only one person interested, they are going to drive the valuation."

“Picking the right partners is such an important decision — don’t take that lightly just because they have money.”

—Chantell Preston, lead partner at Portfolio, co-founder and CEO of Facilities Management Group, and moderator of the event.

Here's what interactive, virtual events to log on to this month. Getty Images

10+ can't-miss virtual business and innovation events in Houston for June

where to be online

Despite much of the state returning to some state of normalcy, larger groups are still not encouraged to gather quite yet in order to avoid an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

With that in mind, here are over 10 Houston innovation events you can attend virtually via online meetings. Be sure to register in advance, as most will send an access link ahead of the events.

June 2 — How Fashion Brands Optimize E-Commerce and Sustainability During a Pandemic

Kim Roxie, founder of LAMIK Beauty, moderates a panel of e-commerce startup founders for The Ion to discuss modern issues the female founders are facing.

Details: The event is at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 2. Learn more.

June 4 — Startup Growth After COVID-19 with Sputnik ATX

Curious about what business and startup growth may look like post-COVID-19? Join Sputnik ATX Partner Joe Merrill via General Assembly for a discussion on how to grow a business and raise a round during a pandemic.

Details: The event is at 3 p.m. on Thursday, June 4. Learn more.

June 6 — Enventure Basecamp: Business Building Workshop

Our community-driven business building basecamp series returns this June to support a local innovator construct their healthcare venture.

Details: The event is at 9 a.m. on Saturday, June 6. Learn more.

June 9 — Pulse Check-Today's Funding Landscape

Today's current crisis has changed the mindset of many industry strategic partners, investors and overall stakeholders. From pivoting investment priorities, to identifying new areas of innovation, the investor landscape is constantly shifting.

For small to medium sized biotechs, it can be hard to keep up with promised milestones while also planning and anticipating the future of their companies. How could companies be preparing for not only the short-term but for years to come? What should be prioritized in the coming months? Who is still investing? How can they find the right partners for them as they move forward?

Details: The event is at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, June 9. Learn more.

June 11 — Energy and Utilities: Drones, Connectivity, and Operations of the Future

Preparing for the future can be confusing. How can you keep up with industry and regulatory advancements, or know when to invest in new technology? That's why we teamed up with Southern Company to share how they're preparing — and how you can, too. Join Skyward and Southern Company for a discussion about energy and utility operations of the future and practical steps you can take now to prepare your enterprise.

Details: The event is at 1 p.m. on Thursday, June 11. Learn more.

June 11 — Venture vs The Virus: Texas Halo Fund IV

The Houston Angel Network presents Episode 3 of Venture vs The Virus. During this virtual event you will hear from the managing directors of the Texas Halo Fund on the launch of their new fund and the investment opportunities they are seeing as a result of the health crisis.

Details: The event is at 2 p.m. on Thursday, June 11. Learn more.

June 11 — Intro to Fundraising in FemTech & AMA with Juliana Garaizar and Dr. Barreto

Are you raising capital for your FemTech startup? Join us VIRTUALLY for an overview from venture capitalists and investors at Intro to Fundraising in FemTech & Ask Me Anything!

Details: The event is at 2 p.m. on Thursday, June 11. Learn more.

June 16 — Women in Tech Summit presented by Accenture

Capital Factory will host a virtual Women In Tech Summit dedicated to increasing diversity in the entrepreneurial and tech community while making its coworking space an inclusive environment for all.

Attendees can look forward to a special keynote guest, insightful fireside chats, discussion sessions, a startup showcase, Epic Office Hours, and panels on relevant topics facing the tech ecosystem.

Details: The event is at noon to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, June 16. Learn more.

June 16 — VC Ask Me Anything Virtual Event featuring The Artemis Fund

These livestreams, which will include audience Q&A, will tackle the big questions on everyone's mind, like how founders should adjust in the face of the pandemic and what fundraising will look like once the pandemic loosens its grip. Click here to stream.

Details: The event is at 2 to 3 p.m. on Tuesday, June 16. Learn more.

June 17-19 — Virtual Rice Business Plan Competition

This year's Rice Business Plan Competition, which was planned for March 26 to 28, was canceled due to COVID-19, but the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has decided to offer up an alternative: A virtual RBPC. Forty two student teams will compete over three virtual events.

Details: The event is from June 17 to 19. Learn more.

June 23 — Virtual Fireside Chat: Fredrik Tukk, Maersk Drilling

Join The Ion for a chat with Fredrik Tukk-Head of Innovation Scouting at Maersk Drilling about how organizations can benefit from innovation

Details: The event is at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, June 23. Learn more.

June 24 — The Ion Startup Demo Day

Top tier mentors, local investors, and personalized pitch feedback for participating startups -- nothing's changed but the address. Whether you're a serial entrepreneur or just looking to get involved in the community, this event is for YOU.

Details: The event is at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, June 24. Learn more.

June 30 — TMC Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics Info Session

The TMC ACT team will answer questions including who should apply to TMC ACT, what are the timelines, and what value to expect.

Details: The event is at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, June 30. Learn more.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston synthetic biology VC grows team ahead of foundry launch

future of tech

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.”

NASA taps Houston companies for revolutionary spacesuit project

gear up

Two startups — including Houston-based Axiom Space — have been tasked with helping NASA gear up for human space exploration at the International Space Station and on the moon as part of a spacesuit deal potentially worth billions of dollars.

NASA recently picked Axiom and Collins Aerospace to help advance spacewalking capabilities in low-earth orbit and on the moon by outfitting astronauts with next-generation spacesuits. While headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, Collins has a significant presence in the Houston Spaceport.

This deal will help support landing the first woman and the first person of color on the moon as part of NASA’s return to our lunar neighbor. The equipment also will help NASA prepare for human missions to Mars.

Under this agreement, NASA, Axiom and Collins “will develop advanced, reliable spacesuits that allow humans to explore the cosmos unlike ever before,” Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, says in a news release. “By partnering with industry, we are efficiently advancing the necessary technology to keep Americans on a path of successful discovery on the International Space Station and as we set our sights on exploring the lunar surface.”

Axiom and Collins were chosen under an umbrella contract known as Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS). The contract carries a potential value of $3.5 billion.

Michael Suffredini, co-founder, president, and CEO of Axiom, says his company’s “innovative approach to xEVAS spacesuits provides NASA with an evolvable design that enables cost-efficient development, testing, training, deployment, and real-time operations to address a variety of EVA needs and operational scenarios for a range of customers, including NASA.”

Axiom’s partners on this project are KBR and Sophic Synergistics, both based in Houston, along with Air-Lock, David Clark Co., Paragon Space Development, and A-P-T Research.

NASA says Axiom and Collins will own the spacesuits, and are being encouraged to explore non-NASA commercial applications for data and technology they co-develop with the space agency.

The EVA & Human Surface Mobility Program at the Johnson Space Center is managing the xEVAS contract.

NASA astronauts have needed updated spacesuits for years.

“The decades-old spacesuit designs currently in use on the International Space Station are well past their prime. NASA had been working on new suits and showed off a patriotic prototype of a moonwalking outfit — called the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU — back in 2019,” according to CNET.

A 2021 report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General called out delays in developing the spacesuits that would make a proposed 2024 human moon landing unfeasible, CNET says. Now, Axiom and Collins, instead of NASA, will create the spacesuits. Demonstration-ready spacesuits are supposed to be ready in 2025.

The spacesuit deal is the latest in a string of milestones for Axiom.

Axiom recently broke ground on its new headquarters at Houston Spaceport. There, the company will build Axiom Station, the world’s first commercial space station.

Axiom also recently welcomed home the crew of Axiom Mission 1 after their successful completion of the first all-private astronaut mission to the International Space Station. The crew came back to earth in a SpaceX capsule. The company has signed agreements with several countries, including Italy, Hungary, and the United Arab Emirates, for future space missions.

Axiom recently tapped Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei as its first international professional astronaut. He currently is being trained in Houston and will serve as a backup on Axiom Mission 2.

Founded in 2016, Axiom employs more than 500 people, most of whom work in Houston. The company expects its workforce to exceed 1,000 employees by 2023.

To date, Axiom has raised $150 million in venture capital.

Houston sportstech-focused lab wraps up inaugural cohort, opens apps for fall

houston innovators podcast episode 141

Houston is having a moment when it comes to sports. Fresh off the announcement of Houston being selected as a FIFA World Cup host in 2026 and just a year away from hosting another NCAA Final Four, the city is also home to a growing sportstech hub.

And one new Houston company, Pokatok, is hoping it can help support the local sports innovation community. Pokatok, which is part of the same business family as InnovationMap and Gow Media, was founded to create momentum in local sportstech activity, Kate Evinger says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast.

"Our mission is to help be a partner with all the exciting things happening in Houston — from the startup entrepreneurship side to the things we're seeing in the sports community — to continue to elevate and uplift the voices here in addition to bringing folks in from all over the world to celebrate the human experience in sports and to continue driving innovation in this space," she says on the show.

One of the ways the company is spurring sports innovation is through Pokatok Labs, a scale-up program for seed and series A startups in the sportstech space. Evinger, who leads the program as director, says the inaugural cohort has wrapped up — and the team is already accepting applications for the fall program, which will run September 20 through November 18.

"We are looking for anything and everything under the sun within sportstech — even if you're the founder of a company that may have ties to sports but you're not sure, we're happy to have that conversation," Evinger says. "It could be nutrition, health and wellness, athlete performance, fan engagement, or smart venue."

Evinger shares more about Pokatok Labs and the potential she sees for Houston to continue evolving as a hub for sports innovation on the podcast.

Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.