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.

Houston-based Moleculin has three different oncology technologies currently in trials. Getty Images

Immunotherapy and personalized medicine get all the headlines lately, but in the fight against cancer, a natural compound created by bees could beat them in winning one battle.

In 2007, chairman and CEO Walter Klemp founded Moleculin Biotech Inc. as a private company. The former CPA had found success in life sciences with a company that sold devices for the treatment of acne. That introduction into the field of medical technology pushed him toward more profound issues than spotty skin.

"Coincidentally, the inventor of that technology had a brother who was a neuro-oncologist at MD Anderson," Klemp recalls.

The since-deceased Dr. Charles Conrad slowly lured Klemp into what he calls the "cancer ecosphere" of MD Anderson. In 2016, the company went public. And it looks like sooner rather than later, it could make major inroads against some of the toughest cancers to beat.

Klemp observed that while Houston has the world's largest medical center, "the tragic irony" is that other cities have far more biotech money ready to be invested.

"The Third Coast is really starved for capital," he says. "What drew me into this was I was one of the few entrepreneurs that lived here that knew the ropes in terms of tapping into East and West Coast capital structures and could make that connection for them."

The company has three core technologies currently being tested with some success, but the most promising is called WP1066, named for researcher Waldemar Priebe, "a rock star" in his native Poland, according to Klemp, who works at MD Anderson. Though Priebe came to the U.S. in the 1980s, he is still an adjunct professor at the University of Warsaw and conducts some of his trials in Poland because it's easier to get grant money there.

WP1066 uses propolis, a compound of beeswax, sap and saliva that bees produce to seal small areas of their hives, as a base. The molecular compound that Priebe discovered affects STAT3 (signal transducer and activator of transcription), a transcription factor that encourages tumor development. In short, the active compound in WP1066 both downregulates the STAT3, a long-time Holy Grail in the cancer research world, and directly attacking the tumor, but also quieting T Cells, which allows the body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. Essentially, it works both as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

WP1066 is demonstrating drug-like properties in trials at MD Anderson on glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that recently took the life of the hospital's former president, John Mendelsohn, as well as John McCain and Beau Biden. It is also being tested against pancreatic cancer, one of the most virulent killers cancer doctors combat.

Priebe also created Annamycin, named for his oldest daughter, a first-line chemotherapy drug that fights Acute Myeloid Leukemia without the cardiotoxicity that can damage patients' hearts even as they beat their cancer.

WP1122 uses yet another mechanism to fight cancer.

"Most people don't know that morphine is essentially a modified version of heroin," Klemp explains.

The difference between the poppy-based drugs? Heroin can cross the blood-brain barrier. It's described as the dicetyl ester of morphine. WP1122 is the dicetyl ester of 2DG (2-Deoxyglucose), a glycolysis inhibitor, which works by overfilling tumor cells with fake glucose so that they can't consume the real glucose that makes them grow.

"The theory is, we could feed you so full of junk food that eventually you'd starve to death," Klemp elucidates. It can cross the blood-brain barrier and is metabolized slowly, meaning that it can be made into a drug in a way that 2DG cannot.

What's impressive about Moleculin is its diversity of drugs. Most companies have one drug that gets all or most of the attention. Moleculin has strong hopes for all three currently in trials.

"It's essentially multiple shots on the goal," says executive vice president and CFO Jonathan Foster.

Moleculin has 13 total employees, five of whom are based in Houston. An office in the Memorial Park area serves as a landing pad for employees and collaborators from around the world to get their work done when in Space City. The virtual office set-up works for the company because experts can stay in their home cities to get their work done. And that work is on its way to saving scores of lives.