eavesdropping in houston

Overheard: Houston health care experts sound off on how tech and COVID-19 have affected the industry

Health care leaders joined a virtual panel to discuss the effects of COVID-19 and more. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

There has been an undeniable paradigm shift in the health care industry due to COVID-19 as well as the growth of technology. A group of professionals sat down to discuss what in particular has changed for the industry as a whole as well as at local institutions.

At a panel for Venture Houston, a two-day conference put on by the HX Venture Fund on February 4th and 5th, a few health care professionals weighed in on all the changes to the industry for the startups, investors, corporations, and more who attended the virtual event. Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual panel — Thinking Past a COVID World.

“For most of health care, this last year has been probably five years of rapid cycle re-innovation and movement forward — particularly in the digital realm.”

Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist. From rapid adoption of telemedicine to developing a COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year, health care has seen rapid growth. However, there's fine tuning still needed, Boom continues.

"At the end of the day there's only so much we can do virtually," he adds.

“The most incredible thing was how the vaccines got developed so quickly.”

Chris Rizik, CEO of Renaissance Venture Partners. A large portion of the industry wasn't excited about RNA vaccines, but the COVID-19 vaccines might have changed some minds. It took 11 months to get it out into the world, but 10 of that was purely regulatory, he adds.

"One of the sustaining changes of the COVID-19 pandemic is I think RNA vaccines are here to stay."

​— Paul Klotman, executive dean of Baylor College of Medicine. Klotman adds that the vaccine's trials were so impressively quick because there were just so many COVID patients sick and eligible to enroll.

“I think one of the things the TMC institutions did really well was to decide really early on was to share data.”

Boom says, adding that the TMC represents around 70 percent of Houston's adults and around 90 percent of the city's pediatric patients. This opportunity for data is "one of the most robust sources of real-time data."

"Yes, you're going to compete clinically, but there's a lot of collaboration to be done especially during a pandemic," Boom says of the TMC's member organizations prioritizing collaboration with data sharing.

“Houston has done better than almost all major metropolitan areas because we have came together as a city and a community.”

Klotman says, adding that the vast patient base the TMC is key.

"There's a huge opportunity here for early biotech development," he says. "Because there are so many patients, there are huge opportunities to do new trials."

“The real challenge is for investors to be in tune to know what’s here to stay, and to invest around that."

Rizik says, adding that 2020 was the biggest year for health care investment with more money going into deals, rather than more deals occuring.

“We’re seeing a huge uptick in people interested in health professions, thanks to COVID.”

Boom says of the industry's workforce, which has usually been hard to recruit and grow.

“The medical school communities are all racing to change the way we teach and the kind of information we teach.”

Klotman says of the future of the workforce.

“Unlike most industries, technology is tended to be cumbersome in health care.

​— Boom says adding that new technology means added costs and slowed down processes that can't replace the human touch. Houston Methodist is looking for innovations that don't take health care professionals away from patients.

“If there’s anything this last year has shown us is that as fast as we thought we were going, we need to go faster. We’re excited to work with companies with great ideas.”

— Boom says of the future of tech in health care. "I think we're on a very transformational era in digital health right now — but there's a lot of work to be done still."

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BioBQ is working on technology to bring its lab-created, cell-cultured brisket to the market in 2023. Courtesy of BioBQ

Brisket, a barbecue staple in Texas, is as synonymous with the Lone Star State as the Alamo and oil wells. A Texas company recently recognized as the state’s most innovative startup wants to elevate this barbecue staple to a new high-tech level.

BioBQ is working on technology to bring its lab-created, cell-cultured brisket to the market in 2023. The Austin-based company made the Bloomberg news service’s new list of the 50 startups to watch in the U.S. — one startup for each state.

The co-founders of BioBQ are Austin native Katie Kam, a vegan with five college degrees (four from the University of Texas and one from Texas A&M University), and Janet Zoldan, a “hardcore carnivore” who’s a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. Kam is the CEO, and Zoldan is the chief science officer.

This kind of meat is genuine animal meat that’s produced by cultivating animal cells in a lab, according to the Good Food Institute.

“This production method eliminates the need to raise and farm animals for food. Cultivated meat is made of the same cell types arranged in the same or similar structure as animal tissues, thus replicating the sensory and nutritional profiles of conventional meat,” the institute says.

It turns that before becoming a vegan, Kam worked at the now-closed BB’s Smokehouse in Northwest Austin as a high school student. She’d chow down on sauce-slathered brisket and banana pudding during on-the-job breaks.

“But then over time, as I learned more about factory farming and could no longer make the distinction between my dogs and cats I loved and the animals that were on my plate, I decided to become vegan,” Kam writes on the BioBQ website.

Hearing about the 2013 rollout of the first cell-cultured hamburger set Kam off on her path toward starting BioBQ in 2018. Zoldan joined the startup as co-founder the following year.

Now, BioBQ aims to be the first company in the world to sell brisket and other barbecue meats, such as jerky, made from cultured cells rather than slaughtered animals.

According to BioBQ’s profile on the Crunchbase website, the startup relies on proprietary technology to efficiently produce meat products in weeks rather than the year or more it takes to raise and slaughter cattle. This process “allows control of meat content and taste, reduces environmental impacts of meat production, and takes BBQ to the next tasty, sustainable level consumers want,” the profile says.

In 2020, Texas Monthly writer Daniel Vaughn questioned BioBQ’s premise.

He wrote that “there is something about the idea of lab-grown brisket that keeps bothering me, and it has nothing to do with science fiction. If you could design any cut of beef from scratch, why choose one that’s so difficult to make delicious? Why not a whole steer’s worth of ribeyes?”

Kam offered a very entrepreneur-like response.

“I’m from Austin, and I know that brisket’s kind of a big deal here,” Kam told Vaughn. “It seemed like a great, challenging meat to demonstrate this technology working.”

Meanwhile, Zoldan came up with a more marketing-slanted reaction to Vaughn’s bewilderment.

“I don’t think cell-based meats will take over the market, but I think there’s a place for it on the market,” Zoldan she told Vaughn.

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This article originally ran on CultureMapCultureMap.

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