Biotech Accelerator Debuts in Houston

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Pictured: A park in Houston with skyscrapers in the background/iStock, TomasSereda

Last month, Rice University in Houston announced the launch of its Biotech Launch Pad, a new biotech accelerator. The philanthropically-funded Launch Pad will bring together researchers at the Texas Medical Center with a national network of experienced industry executives, additional funding sources and 15,000 square feet of accelerator space.

As a biotech accelerator, the Rice Biotech Launch Pad needs to work closely with clinicians to better understand the medical problems faced by their patients, said Omid Veiseh, an associate professor of bioengineering at Rice and faculty director for the Biotech Launch Pad.

The new accelerator is the university’s first large-scale initiative designed to usher internally-discovered technologies from concept through clinical studies to commercialization, while bringing Houston to the forefront of medical innovation ecosystems in the U.S. It is the brainchild of Veiseh and Paul Wotton, co-founders of Avenge Bio and other companies commercializing technology developed at Rice, including in Veiseh’s lab.

“We want to accelerate the technology coming out of Rice’s labs into the market and help people live better lives,” said Paul Cherukuri, vice president of innovation at Rice and chief innovation officer of the Rice Biotech Launch Pad.

Cherukuri added that the goal is to get these technologies from development into the clinic within five years. As he put it, “This is acceleration writ large.”

“With this mindset, we think we can increase the impact the university can have on a faster timescale, and reduce the overall cost of bringing products to market,” Veiseh said.

Lone Star hotbed

To achieve its goals, the Launch Pad needs to engage with potential investors and venture capital firms in the beginning stages of these projects, Veisaeh said. The Launch Pad’s external advisory board largely comprises people from VC and business development. “What we are trying to do is engage seasoned entrepreneurs, and people that have been CEOs and in business development, with these projects earlier on,” Cherukuri said, adding that he believes the VC community has an interest in Houston and the discoveries and clinicians at Rice. “By organizing this effort more, we can create conduits for startups through this bioaccelerator, and build the infrastructure needed for them to be successful,” he said.    

To date, researchers making innovative discoveries in Houston have not engaged the VC and business communities as well as they could have, Cherukuri said. Veiseh explained that bringing VC, industry and clinicians into the conversation while new technology is being developed can get it to patients more quickly. Instead of handing off technologies as they are developed, these parties are brought together at the beginning to more holistically plan for ultimate real-world applications.

By having resources in one place and a critical mass of people to create communities, the Rice Biotech Launch Pad seems poised for success going forward, said Glennis Mehra, director of Biolabs@NYULangone. To be successful, accelerators must be in tune with local network needs and specific founder needs, she added, and “Having equipment, lab space, networks and community are all pretty vital.”

On September 26, the Biotech Launch Pad announced an early boost: a $45 million award from the Advanced Research Products Agency for Health, the funding agency for health and biomedical research set up by the Biden-Harris administration.

The ARPA-H grant will fund development of the Targeted Hybrid Oncotherapeutic Regulation (THOR) project. This project involves Veiseh and other scientists at Rice and elsewhere representing multiple disciplines, including electrical engineering, materials science, synthetic biology, immunology and oncology. Its aim is to develop a minimally invasive implant, dubbed HAMMR, that will sense biomarkers and deliver specific doses of drugs to help the body better respond to immunotherapy treatment of peritoneal and other solid tumors.

Cherukuri noted that the Rice Biotech Launch Pad builds on a foundation of local medical innovation that goes back to Michael DeBakey, the heart surgeon at Baylor who developed the artificial heart. “Houston has a long history and a culture of driving innovation,” he said.

Charlotte LoBuono is a freelance science writer based in New Jersey. Reach her at lobuono2@verizon.net.

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