Texas Medical Center Makes Pitch to Boost Houston Biotech Startups

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TMC—composed of 59 member institutions with 7,000 patient beds and 106,000 employees—has a footprint, resources, and domain expertise that could play a deciding role in whether Houston establishes a biotech community on par with those in Boston or San Francisco. So far, despite Houston’s considerable biotech knowledge base, the city has been home to very few major hits. (Tanox, which developed the asthma drug omalizumab (Xolair), is a notable exception. In 2006, the company was acquired by Genentech for $919 million.)

The dearth of similar stories comes partly from a lack of focus on commercialization, observers say. “The TMC created an environment that made healthcare delivery the best in the country, but the focus on commercialization didn’t happen at the same level that you saw at other R&D clusters,” says Gray Hancock, co-founder and COO of medtech startup Decisio Health and a longtime Houston life sciences entrepreneur.

“It’s a great thing to see that attitude changing,” he added. “The fact that TMC is getting behind and promoting commercialization is huge.”

Details of TMC’s plans are expected to be revealed Thursday at an invitation-only event at the accelerator site. Many in Houston’s biotech community are eager for more details not only on the accelerator, but also on a possible seed fund the TMC might raise from member institutions that would invest in accelerator companies as well as the possibility of a move by Johnson & Johnson to set up an innovation center in Houston. A Texas outpost would be the fifth in a J&J program that seeks out and helps to develop promising early stage life sciences innovations.

In an e-mail, Meghan Marschall, a spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson Innovation, did not say if a Houston J&J innovation center is in the works but said that “we are extremely supportive of efforts to support early-stage entrepreneurs and innovation in any region and are impressed by Texas Medical Center’s new innovation center.”

Setting up that sort of program in Houston would mark a strategic shift in how local biotechs are evaluated and nurtured, says David Schubert, executive director of the recently shuttered Houston Area Translational Research Consortium at Rice University and the COO at Accelerator in Seattle.

“You have industry scientists that are working every day and triaging deals and technologies and helping people really understand what the next steps are in a scientific commercial game plan,” he adds.

Houston biotech entrepreneurs and investors say they support other more tactical measures that they believe will ease the path to commercialization. Among those include each TMC member institution—a collection of university and private hospitals, medical, pharmacy, dental, and nursing schools—offering standard licensing and IRB contracts. “Each tech … Next Page »

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