Austin Makes Strides in Building a Robust Biotech Innovation Community

Xconomy Texas — 

Austin, TX, has made its mark as a tech hub but lately the city’s life sciences community is gaining some critical mass.

One of the primary factors? The installation of the new Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin. “I think the medical school is going to definitely drive momentum in our life sciences community,” says John Kinzell, co-founder of Xeris Pharmaceuticals in Austin. “It’s been a flyover town for pharma; that will change.”

In the last week both UT and the UT System have announced two initiatives that point to a prioritizing of life sciences commercialization. The Texas Health Catalyst program is designed to connect academic researchers in engineering, natural sciences, pharmacy, and the university’s office of technology commercialization with entrepreneurs and investors in Central Texas and nationally.

“We need to build the Texas life science ecosystem,” says Tim Sullivan, president and CEO of Mystic Pharmaceuticals in Austin. “The need for systemic collaboration will be a critical factor in driving the growth of our regional and state ecosystem.”

Sullivan joins such biotech entrepreneurs as Aeglea BioTherapeutics’ David Lowe, Gail Page of Vineyard Investment Advisors, and Paul Lammers of Myrna Therapeutics on the program’s advisory board.

The project makes some sense as the new medical school’s dean, Clay Johnston, was previously the associate vice chancellor of research at the University of California at San Francisco, where he led the university’s efforts in commercializing life sciences research.

As UT works to promote the development from within its academic ranks, the institution is also working with community partners. One such effort is designed to provide badly needed commercial lab space for fledgling life sciences companies. While UT does have these labs, there aren’t been enough facilities to accommodate the needs of the private sector.

“There has never been incubators that have lab space,” says Cindy Walker-Peach, director of biosciences at UT’s Austin Technology Incubator. “Usually the focus is on IT, which is all good, but we need working wet lab space to do bio development.”

So Walker-Peach has been involved in a fact-finding mission to research which communities are doing this well and how UT can both help fill the gap and encourage community partners to work with the university. “We’re now putting a call-to-action together,” she says, one that would bring together state and local governments as well as Austin area healthcare institutions.

Last week, the UT System announced an initiative called Clinical Trials XPress, which will coordinate clinical trials at UT institutions across the state. An office will be set up at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. Ideally, the program will harness the resources at each institution enabling the trials to be conducted faster. “This program drops most major barriers to university participation in important clinical research that can be translated for better patient care,” says David McPherson,  chairman of the department of internal medicine at UTHealth in Houston.

Healthcare’s higher profile began this year in March at South By Southwest, where, for the first time this spring, the festival featured a healthcare track, including a healthIT expo where entrepreneurs, academics, and biotech companies shared strategies on how to build up the Austin community.

Austin’s biotech scene has been spotlighted recently in other ways as well. In the last two months, two biotech companies—XBiotech and Aeglea —have filed for IPOs.

To enable more companies to join them in the IPO pipeline, Xeris’ Kinzell says a robust financing system is needed. “The tech guys are coming in and investing in life sciences deals,” Kinzell says. “The money will eventually follow the rest of it.”