Panel: Houston Needs Seasoned CEOs to Build Robust Biotech Ecosystem

There is a buzz among Houston’s biotech and life sciences community. In recent weeks, both the Texas Medical Center and Johnson & Johnson have announced ambitious programs aimed at boosting commercialization in a way never before seen in the state.

And last week, during the FreshAir conference—a University of Texas System initiative designed to connect UT with partners in the life sciences industry—the discussion drilled down on how to build a bench of battle-ready managers who can transform good scientific ideas into commercial prospects. The event, which took place at UT’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, brought together venture capitalists and other biotech investors from around the country, each of whom offered perspectives on how best to boost Houston’s homegrown innovations in life sciences.

“There’s great science here,” said Nessan Bermingham, a venture partner at Atlas Venture in Boston. “But at the end of the day it’s management, management, management.”

Despite having one of the world’s largest medical centers with billions in research dollars, many of those advances do not end up being commercialized. That partly reflects a more reserved culture among the academics within TMC’s 59 member institutions, which have 106,000 total employees and a potential clinical trial pool of 7,000 patient beds.

“The entrepreneurial faculty would self-identify,” said Dan Watkins, managing director at Mercury Fund in Houston. “But Houston, until recently, hasn’t seen a lot of academics seeking to push their science out into companies.”

That culture stunts the commercial potential of Houston, making it “really, really hard for me to invest in Texas,” said Amir Nashat, managing partner at Polaris Partners in Boston.

The upshot? “Technologies need to be more advanced here than they do on the east and west coasts,” said Dennis Stone, director and chief scientific officer of Remeditex Ventures and formerly vice president for technology development at UT’s Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “We’re hampered by not having feet on the ground.”

Bringing big pharma to Texas is key to expanding Houston’s life sciences executive corps, panelists said. They added that they hope that the new J-Labs could play that role. The program, which was formerly known as Janssen Labs, is expected to open in Houston by the end of next year.

Success for J&J could entice others to Houston as well. “The solution is to get big companies to move to your area,” Nashat said. “It becomes so much easier to poach talent.”

In a subsequent panel discussion, leaders of Texas institutions discussed ways in which they are fostering an entrepreneurial culture. “We’re now in the tech translation business, not the licensing business,” said Brett Giroir, executive vice president and CEO of Texas A&M University’s Health Science Center. “We want to keep it as long as we can and develop it down the pipeline.”

TMC CEO Bobby Robbins said in addition to setting up its own accelerator, the center is putting together a fund of as much as $50 million from its member institutions, as well as others, in order to invest in promising local biotech ideas.

Such a multi-pronged approach is important, BioHouston CEO Jacqueline Northcut said. “We could wait for 30 years and hope a critical mass develops but the opportunity will have passed us,” she added.


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