A Houston vet has seen growth in business for her mobile vet company due to the pandemic. Now, she's planning major growth. Photo courtesy of Rollin' Vets

It's safe to say that the real winners of work-from-home trends that sparked due to the pandemic are our pets. Dogs and cats that were used to not seeing their owners for eight hours every work day now have 24-hour access to attention, treats, and ear scratches.

This increased attention pets are getting from their owners has also meant an increased awareness of pet health, says Katie Eick, founder of Houston-based Rollin' Vets, a startup that has mobilized veterinary services.

"People are home and observing their animals more. They're seeing and recognizing things they might not have if they were at work all day," Eick says.

Each of the four mobile units can do most everything a brick-and-mortar clinic can. Photo courtesy of Rollin' Vets

That's, of course, not the only way the pandemic has affected business for Eick. She founded her company in 2016 and was seeing steady growth as delivery and on-demand services like Uber, DoorDash, etc. increased in use and awareness.

"We were continuously growing slowly — then COVID hit. It really cemented that … all the convenience services are in the forefront of people's minds." Eick tells InnovationMap. "COVID made it clear that this was a necessary service."

Like a lot of businesses, vet clinics closed to the public and only accept drop-off patients. This new way of seeing pets coupled with the fact that most people are working remotely from home also played to the advantage Rollin' Vets — why drive your pet to drop off at a clinic when the vet can come to your driveway?

COVID-19 closures and social distancing practices also called for a rise in veterinary telemedicine — something that Eick says has been challenging for her to utilize both due to the board of medicine having strict regulations in place as well as the challenges trying to provide virtual animal care poses.

Katie Eick always wanted to be able to offer mobile services. Photo courtesy of Rollin' Vets

"Humans can get on and tell you their symptoms, where they hurt, and how they are feeling. Animals can't do that," Eick says.

Earlier in the pandemic, she did provide some telemedicine visits. The board, which bans telemedicine care for pets not previously seen by a vet or pets that haven't been seen in over a year, loosened the regulations to allow for virtual care of pets if the vet has ever seen the animal. This was helpful for providing refill medications, for instance.

Then, Eick had an appointment with a four-year-old French bulldog that changed her mindset on telemedicine. The dog had some stomach issues when his owner made an appointment with Eick. By the time she got to the dog, he had more or less seemed fine — he was eating again and didn't seem despondent in any way. But when Eick performed his exam, she found a mass.

"If I would have just looked at that dog over a video chat, he would have died," Eick says, adding that she got the dog right into surgery at a nearby facility.

In this case, telemedicine wouldn't have provided a solution for the animal, but Eick hasn't ruled virtual care out in general.

"I do think there's place for it, but we have to be really careful," she says.

At this point, Eick has more than proven her value proposition for her company. She has four mobile units with a team of four vets, six technicians, and four receptionists. As far as funding goes, she's pitched to the Houston Angel Network and is looking for angel investors. She's also planning on looking into crowdfunding as an option.

She's planning for growth — starting with Dallas and San Antonio — and sees the company adopting a franchise model that will eventually take Rollin' Vets out of state.

"We're aiming to be a nationwide brand," Eick says.

Rollin' Vets is planning to fundraise on NextSeed next month. Photo courtesy of Rollin' Vets

Dr. Colleen O'Connor has adapted immunotherapy treatments to be used in dogs. Courtesy of CAVU Biotherapies

Houston-based veterinary biotech startup modernizes cancer treatments for dogs

Paw-dern medicine

More than three years after its founding, Houston-based veterinary biotech company CAVU Biotherapies recently accomplished a significant milestone. In October, CAVU's specialized immunotherapy was administered to its first cancer patient: a black Labrador in Pennsylvania diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma.

Dr. Colleen O'Connor, CEO and founder of CAVU Biotherapies, established the company in July 2015 with a goal to help pets live longer post-cancer diagnoses. O'Connor, who earned a PhD in toxicology with a specialty in immunology, has more than a decade of hands-on experience researching cancer treatments.

"Our goal is to scale up and be able to increase our dogs' qualities of life with us," O'Connor said. "We want to keep families intact longer and we want to be able to modernize cancer care for our animals."

At CAVU, O'Connor dedicates her time to modernizing cancer care for dogs by developing an Autologous Prescription Product, otherwise known as adoptive T-cell therapy for dogs. The T-cell therapy is currently offered as a companion treatment to other canine cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, O'Connor said.

Historically, cancer research for animals has lagged behind that of humans, and cancer diagnoses have come late due to the language barrier, O'Connor said. Of the dogs who enter remission, a majority of them relapse within 10 months to one year, she said.

"A majority [of dogs] are diagnosed at stage four, and you have to become very aggressive," O'Connor said. "For B-cell lymphoma, with the current treatments right now and the current standard of [therapies], less than 20 percent make it to two years post-diagnosis."

Launching CAVU
O'Connor first began studying T-cell therapy for humans with cancer during her post-doctoral fellowship at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Her fellowship also partnered with Texas A&M University's Small Animal Hospital to develop a clinical trial studying the effects of adoptive T-cell therapies on dogs with B-cell lymphoma.

T-cell therapy is a cellular-based treatment in which a type of white blood cells — or the cells that fight off tumors and infections — are harvested from blood samples drawn from patients. The cells are then injected back into the patient through an IV to fight the cancerous cells, O'Connor said.

Unexpectedly, O'Connor's 19-year-old dog, Bubbles, was diagnosed with transitional cell carcinoma in 2008 and later dying from it in December 2009. Five years later, O'Connor's sister's 6-year-old dog, Daisy, also died from transitional cell carcinoma. O'Connor said she remembers feeling helpless as she watched the dogs succumb to the disease.

"I was giving them drugs and protocols that were from 1980 … and I was really upset that there wasn't much more we could do for our dogs — especially because I treat my dogs like family," O'Connor said.

That was when O'Connor realized she wanted to help prevent other people from feeling the pain of losing their furry family members. While T-cell therapy is not a new method of treating cancer in humans, O'Connor focused on modifying the serum to create a treatment plan appropriate for dogs.

However, launching a company focusing specifically on treating cancer in animals was not without its challenges; O'Connor said she had to learn how to start a business, make industry connections, and adopt an entrepreneurial mindset.

To help with this, CAVU also connected with various entrepreneurial accelerators, such as Houston Technology Center and Station Houston, which are associations that help place young businesses in front of investors.

CAVU later became a member of the Houston Angel Network — a group of private investors of high net worth individuals that as a group invest in startups. By presenting her business to HAN and its investors, CAVU was able to gain financial backing.

CAVU also recently joined the Capital Factory in early 2018, an Austin-based accelerator program for entrepreneurs in Texas. O'Connor said the program has helped her meet investors, mentors and other startups.

"The way I overcame a lot of this [the early challenges] is by education, listening and trying to navigate and talk with as many of the right people as I could that had experience," she said.

The future of CAVU
Since CAVU treated its first patient in October, CAVU's adoptive T-cell therapy treatment has been administered to six dogs, O'Connor said. CAVU's T-cell therapy is currently available at more than 12 veterinary clinics across the country, including clinics in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, and Missouri.

Additionally, four Houston-area clinics currently offer the T-cell therapy treatment: Garden Oaks Veterinary Clinic, Bayou City Veterinary Hospital, Memorial-610 Hospital for Animals, and Sugar Land Veterinary Specialists.

In order for a dog to be considered as a candidate — though it is ultimately up to the veterinarian on whether the T-cell therapy is right for specific dogs — the dogs must weigh more than 8 pounds, not be allergic to mouse or cow products and have no active autoimmune diseases.

The company also launched a new clinical trial with A&M University in October, looking at the effects of CAVU's T-cell therapy coupled with reduced chemotherapy periods for dogs, from roughly 19 to 26 weeks of chemotherapy to 6 to 8 weeks.

While CAVU's therapy is currently only available for dogs, O'Connor said her team plans to modify the T-cell therapy to be administered in other animals.

"We have a lot of cat owners ask us [about treatment] and we are going to do that for the next round in funding," she said. "We're going to look at how to translate this for cats and eventually horses."

O'Connor said that CAVU will launch more clinical trials with A&M University's Small Animal Hospital in the future, with CAVU aiming to make T-cell therapy treatments for cats and horses available in 2020.

Looking back, O'Connor said she has come a long way in her career path: from working with sea animals at the Newport Aquarium in Kentucky to studying human immunology and toxicology, but she's returned to studying animals.

"It's amazing how I pivoted, but at the end of the day I kind of came back to animals … and I came back full circle in a way I could have never expected," she said.

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TMC Innovation announces second cohort of promising Danish health tech companies

welcome to houston

A new cohort of scientists from the Texas-Denmark BioBridge has been selected to join a Texas Medical Center Accelerator, joining forces with some of Houston’s best advisers and mentors.

This is the second year that four Danish companies have been chosen to join a special TMC Innovation Accelerator program with plans to bring their technologies to the American market. In a joint press release, the Texas Medical Center (TMC) and the BioInnovation Institute (BII), announced that the participants are scheduled to arrive in Houston on May 13 for their first session, in which they’ll work on US customer validation. After that, they’ll take part in the full program, which will allow the founders to make their plans for strategic development over the course of six months.

Just as the TMC Innovation Factory offers help for founders who have set their sights on success in the US market, the Danish BioInnovation Institute provides life science startups with the connections, infrastructure and financial support necessary to bring their ideas to the public.

The companies selected include:

  • Alba Health is pioneering a gut microbiome test for young children that’s informed by AI.
  • AMPA Medical has created InterPoc, a more discrete alternative to types of stoma bags currently available for ileostomy patients.
  • Droplet IV is a medical device that automatically flushes IV lines, reducing waste and making nurses’ jobs easier.
  • Metsystem is a cancer metastasis platform aimed at predicting what the most effective cancer drug is for each patient.

“We are excited to welcome these startups to TMC as Danish companies are making significant strides in drug discovery and health tech developments” says Devin Dunn, head of the accelerator for Health Tech, in the release. “As they look to expand into the US market, the collaborative environment fostered by our dedicated team, programs, and clinical community will help them advance their innovations, foster research collaborations, and further develop their technologies here in Houston.”

The program for the accelerator is based on the successes of the TMC Innovation (TMCi) Health Tech Accelerator program. The TMC Denmark BioBridge was established in 2019 as a collaboration between TMC and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark.

Houston hospital flies in drone delivery service for medical supplies, prescriptions

incoming

A Houston hospital system has announced that it has plans to launch a drone delivery service for specialty prescriptions and medical supplies in 2026.

Memorial Hermann Health System announced that it intends to be the first health care provider in Houston to roll out drone delivery services from San Francisco-based Zipline, a venture capital-backed tech company founded in 2014 that's completed 1 million drone deliveries.

"As a system, we are continuously seeking ways to improve the patient experience and bring greater health and value to the communities we serve. Zipline provides an innovative solution to helping our patients access the medications they need, quickly and conveniently, at no added cost to them," Alec King, executive vice president and CFO for Memorial Hermann, says in a news release.

Zipline boasts of achieving delivery times seven times faster than traditional car deliveries and can usually drop off packages at a rate of a mile a minute. The drones, called Zips, can navigate any weather conditions and complete their missions with zero emissions.

Per the release, the service will be used to deliver items to patients or supplies or samples between its locations.

"Completing more than one million commercial deliveries has shown us that when you improve health care logistics, you improve every level of the patient experience. It means people get better, faster, more convenient care, even from the comfort of their own home," adds Keller Rinaudo Cliffton, co-founder and CEO of Zipline. "Innovators like Memorial Hermann are leading the way to bring better care to the U.S., and it's going to happen much faster than you might expect."