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

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.

Finding funding is tough and might get you in the mother of all holes — the Valley of Death. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

7 ways to escape the Valley of Death, according to University of Houston research

Houston Voices

To walk through the valley of death means that death and misery are low points (valleys) in the human experience through which we all must inevitably walk and experience.

Although not as morbid, in the world of startup businesses, the valley of death is still grim. It is a low point in your startup's life where your business suffers and all seems lost. Specifically, it describes how hard it is to cover negative cash flow while you wait for your startup to start generating revenue from actual consumers. Sadly, only 10 percent of startups will survive the valley of death after the first three years, according to a Gompers and Lerner analysis.

"Our startup overcame the valley of death by making believers out of investors. Often, you have ideas that are worthwhile, but you have to find investors who also believe that," says Jason Eriksen, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology and chair and co-founder of Alzeca Biosciences.

Alzeca develops advanced imaging technology that helps physicians detect Alzheimer's at a much earlier stage than ever before. Alzeca is one of 28 groundbreaking and innovative startups changing the world at UH's Technology Bridge.

"Initially, our investors rejected us because they were disappointed that we couldn't cure Alzheimer's, and that we could merely stage it. That sent us spiraling into the valley of death. We overcame that by making other investors believers. We made them believe in our technology for detecting the disease early and that it would be life-changing for millions of sufferers," Eriksen says.

Here are another seven ways to dig yourself out of, not just a hole, but the mother of all holes: the valley of death.

1. Gather resources.

Planning your business is a good way to minimize risk. Such preparation involves determining how much money you will need to get to the revenue generation stage, and how much money you will need to cover costs in the likely event you fall into a financial hole. The more resources you've accumulated beforehand, the more padding you'll have if you fall on your face.

2. Don't quit your day job.

Keep your day-to-day job to keep money coming in and your personal finances covered. Use your weeknights and weekends to put in work on your company while you wait to generate revenue. You'll be making money while you wait for money. This way might take longer, but with proper planning, you can ensure that your lights will stay on while your startup struggles to bring in revenue while spiraling in the valley of death.

3. Find funding from friends and family.

"Angel investors and venture capitalists will feel a lot better about investing if they see you already have money at stake," Eriksen says.

That pre-investor money usually comes from friends and family. There is some weight to the idea that you should never mix business with family, but there are exceptions.

You're more likely to secure funding from friends and family if you show them you have a more-than-solid business plan. Your loved ones will want to see figures and metrics that have tracked what your business has done or what it is projected to do. They will also want to see that you are an expert in your business. It would also help to show them a payment plan where you outline when and how you will pay their money back.

Once you have friends and family funding secured, you're a lot more likely to acquire more funding from investors, and the long, hard road out of the valley of death begins.

4. Call for crowdfunding.

One smart way to jet pack out of the valley of death is to launch a crowdfunding campaign. If you know your tech, service, or product is a game changer, crowdfunding will put that to the test. This is where you'll obtain funding from everyday people who like what you have to offer enough to put all their faith in it in the form of dollars and cents.

5. Enter competitions and apply for grants.

Enter as many competitions as you can.

"Because of the government's recent surge in focus on tech-based and energy-based startups, there are now more startup competitions available in major VC (venture capitalist) geographic hotspots like San Francisco, Boston, New York, LA, and San Jose," Eriksen says.

While those cities are the startup hotspots, their activity reflects the current market for startups all over the country. Thankfully, that activity is at an all-time high, so you can rest assured that startup competitions are abundant in your own city, too.

This is your chance to show the world your hoverboard and attain funding you don't have to pay back, all without even relinquishing any equity. These competitions are, get this, competitive, so it would wise to register as early as you can.

6. Consider joint venture.

There might be a company out there that sees your product or services as congruent to their own business. Reach out to them and try to convince them that a joint venture would behoove both companies. This approach is not uncommon, and companies have been known to advance funding early on with the expectation that you'll reimburse them once your revenue starts rolling in.

7. Borrow if need be. 

Somewhere out there is a loan with your name on it. Wallowing in the valley of death can really leave a business owner feeling desperate and alone in the world. So desperate, that is, that they might mess around and apply for a loan. This alternative is the nuclear option. A last resort. It's only a viable approach if you're willing to put your home or other big assets on the line as collateral.

Typically, banks will only approve loans to startups that are cash-flow positive. So maybe this option is best if you've succeeded with a few of the aforementioned approaches so much that they helped your company start generating revenue. Once you've reached that point, that's the prime time to apply for a loan or line of credit.

"The phrase 'valley of death' is appropriate because it is a death sentence for the vast majority of startups," warns Eriksen.

That doesn't mean you go down without a fight.

When Buster Douglas fought Mike Tyson, every fan, expert, and sportswriter counted him out. For the entire fight, they were right. His defeat was inevitable. Then the tenth round happened.

Not only did he not go down without a fight, he won the bout. He beat the champ, and the odds. If you want your best chance at beating the odds, you do everything you can. You fight. Loans, competitions, crowdfunding, joint ventures; whatever it takes.

"The valley of death is only a death sentence if you allow it to be."

------

This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

The author, Rene Cantu, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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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

who's who

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

coming to Hou

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.