Houston Research Institute Funds Health Startups for Earth and Space

Space may be the final frontier, but it also could represent new horizons for better, more effective healthcare back on Earth.

That’s essentially the philosophy of the National Space and Biomedical Research Institute in Houston, a sort of venture capital arm for NASA which provides seed funding to healthtech and biotech startups nationally. Whether the scene is astronauts aboard the International Space Station, the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Afghanistan, or an impoverished village in sub-Saharan Africa, “this is really about healthcare in extreme environments,” says Dorit Donoviel, the institute’s deputy chief scientist.

NSBRI, which gets $24 million in funding from the space agency each year, specializes in biomedical startups that can provide a two-for-one bang for the research buck. Innovations—in software, devices, or drugs—can better treat patients whether they are in space or on terra firma.

“By developing for space, we’re setting the bar really high—no pun intended,” she says. “That thing’s got to work all the time. It can’t break down. There can be no consumables; you can’t throw things away. It can’t degrade in high or low temperatures.”

The higher standard for space medicine makes sense when you remember that ill astronauts can’t run over to a hospital to get checked and receive care. Zero gravity and radiation cause a myriad of health problems and, though very few astronauts are physicians, they must still be able to diagnose both themselves and their colleagues to see how serious a malady might be.

“We fund things that wouldn’t get funding otherwise,” Donoviel says. “If we say we’re going to put money in a small company, there’s usually someone else who will match it. There’s a cachet of working with the space program.”

In order to receive NSBRI money, startups must have matching grants in hand. The institute does not take a stake in either equity or intellectual property.

The hallways at NSBRI’s offices in the Texas Medical Center are full of glass cases displaying funded companies and placards illustrating how their innovations are used in both space and on Earth. Along one wall, there is Sonomotion, a device which deploys an ultrasound therapy to more effectively break up kidney stones. Astronauts have a higher risk of getting the painful stones because a zero-gravity environment spurs bone loss which, in turn, increases the level of calcium in their bodies. The NSBRI has given about $3 million to the University of Washington, which is working with Sonomotion.

Another startup is Enterade—brought to you by the University of Florida, the institution that gave us Gatorade in the 1960s—which received $100,000 last year for its medical drink that soothes nausea suffered by astronauts due to radiation exposure. On Earth, Enterade could also help relieve the nausea experienced by patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Meanwhile, this past March, Cerebrotech Medical Systems in California received $250,000 to further development of its non-invasive portable monitor to detect changes in brain fluid levels. In a handful of severe cases, astronauts are showing elevated intra-cranial pressure, which is causing vision impairments and irreversible damage to the retina—and possible blindness.

On Earth, Donoviel says, such monitoring can help the more than two million patients who are hospitalized each year after strokes or brain trauma.

At any one time, the NSBRI is typically funding 60 active companies. Still, Donoviel says she wants to expand the institute’s reach. Since her peer review committee, composed entirely of volunteers, can vet only so many companies, the NSBRI earlier this month announced a new program called Smartcap-Accel, a spinoff from the institute’s two-year-old Space Medicine and Related Technologies Commercialization Assistance Program.

“If we partner with accelerators, they’ve already done the due diligence and also put their own money behind the startup,” Donoviel says—an endorsement that makes an application stronger.

To apply for funding through the Smartcap-Accel program, interested startups must be sponsored by their accelerators. The NSBRI is taking online applications until July 22. Donoviel is hosting a webinar today at 2 pm CST, during which interested applicants can submit questions.

Donoviel acknowledges that the accelerator model—in which startups are expected to have products ready to pitch for funding in 12 weeks—could be too fast for space medicine projects. “We may have to look at doing longer programs or having the companies going through multiple accelerators one after another until they’re ready,” she says.

The NSBRI was founded in 1997 at a time when NASA and budget-writers in Washington were seeking a better way to leverage the space agency’s resources and commercialize space medicine research. Since many of the currently funded startups have matching grants from organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, Donoviel says, “for every dollar we give them, we get 2.8 dollars back.”

The bottom line for Donoviel is that the research that the NSBRI funds for space needs has the potential to impact more than the astronaut corps. “If you can make it for space, it makes it more competitive on Earth,” Donoviel says. “That means cheaper models for healthcare on Earth.”

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