Dallas-Fort Worth Aims to Boost Life Sciences Ecosystem

Xconomy Texas — 

North Texas bio ecosystem, know thyself.

That was the goal last week at a conference sponsored by the newly reconstituted Bio North Texas, an advocacy group that is promoting life science commercialization in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“There really is a lot more going on here” when you stop to take a look, says Melissa Knauth, a principal in life science investments for 2M, the family office of Dallas executive Morton Meyerson.

The daylong gathering in the Dallas suburb of Irving, TX, featured panel discussions on financial and translational strategies and academic and other programs to help fledgling companies, and gave various members of the area’s ecosystem an opportunity to describe themselves and the partnerships they sought.

Here are a few highlights from the event:

—Reata founder Warren Huff had some advice for interested life sciences entrepreneurs: “You need to be very realistic about the scientific prospects. Assume the project will fail.” Also: “Be willing to change directions; follow the biology.”

Those words come from experience. In 2011, Reata Pharmaceuticals had to abandon work on a therapy for chronic kidney disease after some late-stage clinical trial patients experienced adverse events such as heart failure. The company has now changed the target of its drug to pulmonary arterial hypertension.

—North Texas biotech companies are growing. Two—Neos Therapeutics and ZS Pharma—both had IPOs in the last year. Still, ZS Pharma has now relocated its headquarters to California.

—The funding environment for early stage biotech companies could get tighter. Thomas Kowalski, Texas Healthcare & Bioscience Institute, says that current Texas state officials, from Gov. Greg Abbott to legislative leaders, hold more conservative views in terms of using public money to support private enterprises than their predecessors.

—While the North Texas biotech entrepreneurial scene is in its early stages, the region is home to large life sciences companies whose employees could help seed startup ventures. For example: Galderma, the North American arm of Nestle, makes dermatological products including the Cetaphil line of lotion and other skin-care products. The area is also home to Alcon, the Fort Worth-based maker of pharmaceuticals, contact lenses, and surgical equipment owned by Novartis.

—Among the organizations that have cropped up in the last decade to help biotech entrepreneurs are the Health Wildcatters accelerator in Dallas and Tech Fort Worth. Area academic institutions have also ramped up commercialization efforts via entities such as the BioCenter at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas; the UT Center for Brain Health at the university’s campus in Richardson, TX; and the Texas Medical Research Collaborative at UT-Arlington’s Research Institute in Fort Worth.

—Brett Giroir, the former CEO of the Texas A&M University Health Science Center and now an advisor to TMCx, the Texas Medical Center’s accelerator in Houston, said those efforts could help North Texas also build a life sciences community that was “more than the sum of its parts.”