Rice Consortium Helped Spark Biotech Researchers’ Inner Entrepreneur

Xconomy Texas — 

Operations at the Houston Area Translational Research Consortium, or HATRC, are winding down for closure in June, but, in its two years of existence, the biotech initiative helped to overcome a roadblock in life sciences commercialization that lingered for decades.

So says Cindy Farach-Carson, vice president of translational bioscience at Rice University and scientific director of the university’s BioScience Research Collaborative, which housed HATRC.

“The idea of transforming the community here has gained so much momentum,” she says. “We now have Enventure, OwlSpark, TMCx. We absolutely inspired those groups. HATRC told them someone was listening when they were saying that there was this need in the community.”

HATRC was formed in 2012 with a mission of operating a “pre-commercialization” center that would connect researchers from Rice and other Texas Medical Center institution entrepreneurs with funding and management expertise. To lead the effort, Rice brought in David Schubert, a biotech veteran and a venture partner with Accelerator in Seattle, as its executive director.

From a life sciences perspective, Houston was unchartered territory, he says. “There was something there that I felt other people hadn’t captured,” Schubert says. “With the massive amounts of federal research dollars … the fact that Lynda Chin, Jim Allison, and others were coming there, it was very attractive.”

In addition to the medical center, the advent of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, a $3-billion, taxpayer-funded enterprise dedicated to finding cancer cures, helped lure star researchers like Chin, who chairs the department of genomic medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Allison, who is the institution’s chair of immunology.

But HATRC quickly found itself mired in controversy related to CPRIT, a state agency that had awarded HATRC a $20 million grant. HATRC was to be working with Anderson’s Institute for Applied Cancer Science, or IACS, but when questions arose as to whether IACS had improperly receiving the commercialization money, the award was pulled.

In response, Schubert says, Rice stepped up to support HATRC, helping the organization find and bring to market a few notable technologies. One of them is Molecular Match, founded by MD Anderson researcher James Welsh, which last week went live with its web portal to more efficiently connect patients with clinical trials. Another startup, Decisio Healthcare, developed software that aggregates data from a number of different health monitoring machines present in both critical care settings—like the ER and ICU—as well as in patient rooms. The software collects the information and displays it onto one screen, flagging care and patient metrics that might need attention. Decisio executives have applied for FDA approval as a class 2 medical device and expect to receive word by the end of the year.

“Also there are cool things that HATRC helped advise on, like Amina Qutub and DiBS,” Schubert says, speaking of a Rice researcher who has developed visualization software for heat maps used to evaluate health care data, such as patient demographics or treatment options.

Despite these successes, the burden for Rice to solely take on responsibility for funding and maintaining HATRC was deemed unsustainable. While HATRC is technically open until June, Schubert has left Houston and returned to Accelerator.

The announcement of the medical center’s new accelerator, TMCx, as well as Johnson & Johnson’s planned opening of a new J-Labs at the facility, meant the time was right to pass on the baton, says George McLendon, Rice’s outgoing provost and a co-director of the TMC’s Innovation Institute.

“There is a sense now that there is an even better way to accomplish this multi-institute collaboration,” he says. “As neutral as Rice is, we’re still an institution that has own view and our own interests.”

Farach-Carson says that, although HATRC will have only existed for a few years, she believes the effort has helped change academics’ attitudes toward seeking commercial opportunities for their science. “Before, they would say, ‘You have to go to Boston or California to do that,’ ” she says. “I don’t hear that anymore.”

She says the experience building HATRC has given her a new understanding of the cultural differences between academics and executives. “I really realize the inventors come in different flavors and it’s important to identify them and not manage them all in a one-size-fits-all way,” she says. “If you don’t match them with an (executive) that understands their academic personality, they will view the business folks as sell-outs trying to make a profit out of my idea.”

Meanwhile, the entrepreneurs and scientists who remain in the HATRC suite of offices on the Rice campus had hoped to keep their startup ecosystem at the BRC intact—even as the formal organization goes away. Kevin Coker, Molecular Match’s CEO, says that being within walking distance of Welsh at MD Anderson, as well as advisors in the HATRC suite and in the medical center at large, has made a crucial difference in getting the startup off the ground. “Video conferences are no substitute,” he wrote last month to Rice University officials in a bid to retain the HATRC space. “We must be together in the same space.”

Earlier this week, however, the verdict came down from Rice. HATRC tenants will have to move out upon their leases’ expiration in June.