MedTalk

TMCx leader is ready for Houston's health care innovation ecosystem to fully bloom

Erik Halvorsen is sparking a medical innovation revolution with TMCx. Courtesy of TMC

Editor's note: Halvorsen reportedly left his position at TMC on December 13, 2018. The original article as it first published is below.

Erik Halvorsen describes himself as an impatient guy, which is why, rather than wait for Houston's medical startup culture to evolve to meet Boston's or Silicon Valley's, he's taking steps to change it now.

"The reality is Houston is not Boston or Silicon Valley, and it comes down to a couple things: access to capital and the pool of entrepreneurs running around," says Halvorsen, director of the TMC Innovation Institute.

But the Texas Medical Center is looking to change that in the health care sector with TMCx, its accelerator.

TMCx was recently given silver recognition from the Seed Accelerator Rankings Project. While it's an impressive feat, Halvorsen envisions TMCx rise through the ranks of that award over the next few years.

"For us, we're kind of competing with ourselves to be as good as we possibly can be."

TMCx graduates around 20 companies per cohort, and there's two cohorts each year — one focused on medical devices, which just concluded with the Nov. 15 Demo Day, and the other, which is about to launch, focused on digital health.

InnovationMap: How did you get your start in your industry?

Erik Halvorsen: From as young as I can remember, I wanted to be a medical doctor. Fast forward, all through undergraduate, I was pre-med. Took the MCAT, scored in the 99 percentile, but when it came time to apply to medical school, I chose not to. I ended up applying to a "tweener program" at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, and they had these master's programs where you would take all the first year's classes of medical school and do research in a particular discipline. I was doing research in biochemistry. I go through that whole program, and then I still wasn't sure I wanted to be a doctor or go to medical school, but I liked research. I got offered a full scholarship to do a Ph.D. program at the University of Virginia, but I didn't love being in the lab. I found an ad somewhere about an internship at the UVA Patent Foundation. It was basically taking early stage innovation, discoveries, and IP out of universities and medical centers and turning them into products, and what that's look like — whether it was startup companies or corporate partners, and that's when the lightbulb went off for me. I was really good at speaking the science to the business side, and then speaking the business and finance side to the scientists and doctors. The rest of my career became some version of playing in that in between space in helping translate ideas to ultimately get to the big companies and ultimately in the market to help patients.

IM: In your role at TMCx, you oversee the accelerator and what companies make it in. What does TMCx look for in its cohort?

EH: What we're looking for is what we think is cutting edge, and truly innovative addressing an unmet need. We consult with a lot of the hospitals here. I ask them what's keeping them up at night. That list helps me select the companies. If I see companies that are making cool products that meet one of these unmet needs in TMC, then I know that company will get traction if they were in town, and that's important.

IM: What's the process of picking the companies?

EH: We'll get 200 to 300 applications and interview about 75 companies for the 20 to 25 spots. When we interview, we get at what is their understanding of the current practice, competitive landscape, etc. It's also a good chance for us to glean a little bit of the personality of the teams we're bringing in. We learned a long time ago that we don't want to work with assholes. We go a long way to find the people who are in it for the right reasons. You have to be really smart and confident — you've got to be pretty self confident if you're think you're bringing a solution to a problem that no one has success doing before. But it has to be self confidence without arrogance.

IM: What's the economic impact of the accelerator?

EH: I think we're clearly a major piece of the Houston ecosystem. JLabs has 50 companies under their roof, and when you add TMCx and the coworking space, we have about 100 health care companies under our roof. When you think about the companies that came through our program, that's a total of 250 companies. Those companies are important to the ecosystem because they are out there telling the world about Texas, the medical center, and Houston. Their word of mouth is the reason we see the volume and the quality of the applications going up each year. A lot of our companies choose to stay in Houston.

IM: What sets TMCx apart from its competition?

EH: We don't take equity. That sets us apart. I think this is a major reason we've been able to attract companies that are more advanced — still startups, just far down the path. Those of the kinds of companies who would never consider an accelerator program that asks them to give up equity.

IM: Where does Houston's innovation sector have room for improvement?

EH: One of the things that I knew moving to Houston from Boston was that the investment environment for life sciences wasn't as robust as Boston. I knew coming in that was going to be a bit of an issue. I also felt like we had the raw materials, that if we ran our program the right way and attracted those companies we needed, the dollars would flow. And that's really been the case.

Another area we have to grow is international collaborations. We already have a high percentage of international applicants, but now we're trying to build these biobridges to other ecosystems where we can collaborate on two areas: research and innovation commercialization.

IM: What all are you excited about seeing from TMC3?

EH: I think it's really unique to Houston to bring all of these elements together in what I think is a well-designed manner. It will really transform the city. You're going to have big industry down there — a lot of those conversations are still ongoing. I mean, 116,000 medical employees and 10 million patients a year, these big health care companies want to be close to that.

This will be another way we can accelerate what we learn in the lab to treatment for patients. I'm really excited about it, and I think the startup companies we continue to bring to Houston and nurture in the TMC Innovation Institute will be a major part of bridging that gap between research and discovery to the big companies that will bring that product to market.

IM: What advice do you have for health-related startup companies?

EH: There are plenty of studies that have been done that have shown that the main reason companies fail is that there's no market for their product — and that's industry agnostic, but it's definitely true in health care. What we spend a lot of time in our program is helping the companies evaluate that and understand what their product market is — and really validating that people are going to use it and, more importantly, people are going to pay for it.

My advice would be not to just assume there's a need. Go figure out how to validate that it's a better technology and that people will use it and buy it.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Houston-based Sportlo is shooting for a one-stop-shop platform for sporting programs in Houston. Cade Martin/Getty Images

In virtually no time at all, Sportlo has built its reputation on the simplest of foundations: community.

Thilo Borgmann and Sebastian Henke founded the local hub for sports parents earlier this year as a tool for sports moms and dads to stay connected with local leagues, sports clubs, coaches, and other parents with children involved in youth sports in the greater Houston area.

"We make it easy for sports parents to keep up with what's happening in their local youth sports community," says Henke. "With our platform, they can discover tryouts, camps, and sports clubs. They can also join and create groups, find private coaches for their kids, and more."

Borgmann and Henke are both former NCAA Division 1 soccer players who starred while they were student athletes at Houston Baptist University, then went on to become well-known private coaches.

The sports-loving duo saw a dearth of useful information for sports parents on popular social media sites, so they created the platform to give users a central place to communicate with each other, join and create groups, discover tryouts and camps for their children and find private coaches across the city to help their young athletes reach their goals.

"We were both involved in sports for most of our lives and then got into private coaching," says Henke. "Overall, what we saw was that there is an entire ecosystem of youth sports and it was very much unorganized."

Henke says sports clubs weren't able to reach potential members and their parents. He says they envisioned a one-stop-shop approach to the sports ecosystem.

"So, Sportlo is focused on sports parents, but within the community, we try to connect persons with coaches, with clubs, with colleges and so on," Henke says. "That's the vision behind it, so people will have a place to have a community, to get advice and tips and then they will have access to certain services and information."

The plan for Sportlo has already evolved in its short life. Originally the platform was going to support just private coaching.

"After we got more feedback from parents and first users, we started to adapt the product and rebuilt the product," Henke says. "Based on the surveys we collected online, parents wanted us to find ways how to connect them with each other, so that's why we started building it as a new page and that's how we realized where it needed to go."

The biggest lesson in listening to their users was understanding that any initial vision to help a community must also be focused on or include what's intrinsically valuable to the users.

"Too often, people get focused on their own ideas and forget that feedback offers surprising moments," says Henke. "Users gave us a whole new path, which kept us from going in the direction where users wouldn't want the product to go."

Feedback from users is key, Henke says, and he recommends startup founders prioritize user experience and constructive criticism.

"All of the ideas that we had in our head, at some point we had to stop and reevaluate them and then focus on the most important thing first and then go from there," he says.

Still, the launch of Sportlo was not without its own unique challenges. Its March go-live date coincided in point of time with the spread of COVID-19, which ultimately turned into a worldwide pandemic.

"We haven't had to make any major changes," says Henke. "But groups on the platform have focused on that topic because there are no sports happening at the moment and they are eager to get them back. But other than that, it's not something we've had to focus on. But for parents, they've focused on related topics, like how to keep their kids busy at home doing exercises, things like that, or when discussing when their kids' clubs are starting back up and how to keep kids safe."

In addition to forming groups and sharing a variety of sports-related topics, parents can post pictures and videos of their child's latest tournament or game, get access to useful articles shared by fellow parents and find recommended sports products for themselves or their child.

"The main reason we added that social component was because we wanted to have a user timeline so when they log in, all the users can see something sports related," says Borgmann. "There's so much noise, with politics and posts that are only about the coronavirus and all that, so we wanted to focus on sports and have parents be able to show how their kid is doing, see other kids in action and support each other with a focus on sports without seeing all the other distractions that might be on other platforms."

For now, Sportlo is focused solely on keeping Houston informed, but it will look to expand to other cities and states when the time comes.

"We are focused right now only on Houston, because we know Houston and Texas and we've experienced different levels of sports in this area, so we want to stay local," says Henke. "Then, the next step is we intend to take it to other cities within Texas. And at some point, our vision is to have the entire youth ecosystem of the United States."

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