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.

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