Houston voices

UH: How biotech companies are withstanding the pandemic

At a time when the coronavirus crisis is impacting most facets of business, biotech startups are standing up to the virus. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

At a time when the business world is reeling, biotech companies are still hanging on. Many biotech startups have successfully pivoted their entire platforms to focus on coronavirus-related work.

Of course, these companies aren't without their struggles. Clinical trials have come to a pause, finding investors has become more difficult and financing rounds have been surceased.

Even then, there are many biotech startups that have managed to snag government loans via the Paycheck Protection Program among other financial assistance. According to Vivian Doelling, the vice president of emerging company development at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, COVID-19 has not impacted the bio science industry as much as it has others.

"Some of the smaller biotech companies have pivoted research to be more COVID-centric. This is also true particularly for companies with open platforms or who were developing products in the antiviral space," Doelling told BioSpace, an online biotech publication.

"To add to that, there are research organizations that are receiving more pandemic-centric business from biotech. And that includes clinical trial work," she continued.

Ongoing biotech challenges

It's no surprise that there have been some concerns regarding the delay of clinical trials for products that have nothing to do with coronavirus. It is feared that the delays might create product pipeline problems in the long run. See, companies usually file patent applications before trials even start. So, delays in clinical trials, according to Doelling, "could take up a big chunk of the time in which treatments can have patent exclusivity before generic competition intensifies."

Delays negatively impact smaller biotech startups. These startups' futures typically rely on the success rate of trial outcomes. Any delay in these trials subsequently hurts the small biotech startup. But, even then, the pandemic still doesn't seem to be affecting these startups.

Investment blues

"The expectation is investors are going to hold back more funds than they projected for their portfolio companies. There could be less funding available for new investments," expressed Doelling. However, it is her belief that biotech companies are hot investments right now, and sees new investments on the horizon.

"Investors are cautious at the moment," said Marty Rosendale, the CEO of the Maryland Tech Council, to BioSpace. "They're going to analyze their own portfolio to make sure those companies are solid."

Rosendale, echoing Doelling's investment concerns, says investors want to be more careful right now. They are making it a point to invest less money, which makes it difficult for startups seeking funding.

Keep on keeping on

Many startups are continuing to operate because they've found their rhythm in the virtual workplace. "I have not come across any biotech startup that has closed its doors during the pandemic," Rosendale said. "Sure, some have faced delays and temporarily stopped operations, but overall, haven't heard of any closing for good."

There are a few forces at play when it comes to helping biotech startups stay afloat during the pandemic storm. Landlords are forgiving rent and government loans are helping companies pay employees. "I know of companies that have been out there fundraising since the beginning of the COVID crisis. And they're still out there doing it," Rosendale said. "But I still haven't heard of one company that was forced to end or even delay a round of funding, not one."

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

Mike Francis, co-founder of NanoTech, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his plans to fireproof California. Photo courtesy of NanoTech

A few years ago, Mike Francis caught a video of a man's hand coated in some sort of material and placed over a fire. Nothing was happening to the man's hand — the coating completely protected it — but something was happening in Francis's brain, and a year ago he founded Nanotech Inc.

Based in Houston, NanoTech' is focused on reducing energy waste by proper insulation within the construction industry — a half inch of NanoTech's material is the equivalent of 30 inches of fiberglass. However, perhaps more important to Francis is the life-saving capability the product provides in terms of fireproofing.

"We're working with all of the major players in the state of California to not only fireproof the utility infrastructure, but eventually homes and businesses," Francis says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal, if we're looking into the future, is to fireproof that state — and we're working with the right people and companies to make it happen."

To the best of his knowledge, Francis says NanoTech is the only company this far along working on this goal. Millions of utility poles go up in flames as the forest fires sweep through the state, and coating them with NanoTech could help prevent this damage.

Of course, as the company grows, Francis is lucky to have the support and the funds behind him and his team. Earlier this year, Halliburton selected NanoTech as the inaugural member of Halliburton Labs. For the past few months, NanoTech has been based in the labs, receiving hands-on support, and NanoTech will join the year-long inaugural cohort of 15 or so companies in 2021.

NanoTech also has a new member to its support system — and $5 million — following the close of its seed round led by Austin-based Ecliptic Capital. Francis says he was looking for an investor to bring new expertise the company doesn't have yet, and Ecliptic will be crucial to growing globally.

"Those first investors, especially in your seed round, are critical to your growth," says Francis. "We're so excited to be partnering with Ecliptic — we just trusted them."

Francis shares more about fundraising during a pandemic and what being based at Halliburton has meant for his company's growth. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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