TMC’s New Innovation Chief Aims to Boost Houston Biotech Ecosystem

Xconomy Texas — 

A veteran of commercialization and tech transfer efforts at universities like Harvard and Tufts and Boston Children’s Hospital, Erik Halvorsen was, at first, puzzled at receiving an offer to lead those initiatives at the Texas Medical Center.

“The Texas Medical Center? I had never heard of that hospital,” he says, laughing. “But, of course, I knew M.D. Anderson, Texas Children’s, and the other member institutions. We’re going to get the word out and let them really see what’s going on.”

That fleeting confusion—as well as the lofty goal—is illustrative of what Halvorsen will face as the first director of the TMC’s Innovation Institute. Houston is home to key elements of a robust biotech ecosystem, with top research, an active venture and angel funding network, and eager entrepreneurs. But that story is not, perhaps, as well known as it should be outside of Texas.

“What we’re trying to build here is to benefit and support innovations across the member organizations of TMC, and even more broadly within and around Houston,” Halvorsen says.

TMC executives Bobby Robbins and Bill McKeon “made no bones about it,” says Halvorsen, in his first interview since he took the TMC position this month. “They want East coast, West coast, and Third coast. They said, make this an epicenter for healthcare innovation.”

The innovation institute will be a key node in making that happen, Halvorsen adds.

Halvorsen’s placement is the latest step by TMC to play a more direct role in boosting Houston’s biotech scene. TMCx, TMC’s accelerator, launched earlier this year with 21 healthIT and medical devices startups. This past summer, eight researchers from around the country were selected for a new fellowship in biodesign. They will be embedded within hospitals to suss out innovation needs within clinical settings.

“They have come up with 400 possible needs in their assessment,” Halvorsen says. “Now we go through an interesting process, the winnowing down to 200, to 50, to 2. How do we really focus on developing key solutions to the problems?”

Halvorsen says that work dovetails nicely into the mission of TMCx, TMC’s year-old accelerator program, which will see big changes in 2016. Instead of one class, the TMCx accelerator will host two classes, with each session hosting a group of 10 startups. The first group of 10 will begin in January and focus on digital health; a second cohort of 10 will come together in the latter half of 2016 and seek commercialization opportunities in medical devices. (And, unlike last year, TMC will be making direct investments into accelerator companies.)

“There you get into the ideation stage, rapid prototyping, you get up and running,” he says.

The Innovation Institute is also providing office space and other resources with TMCx+, a warren of offices for early stage companies; a planned prototyping space; and the co-working and wet lab spaces soon to be available when JLabs opens its Houston branch next year. “You have more mature companies, who are seeking seed funding and Series A funding with full-time employees,” he says.

All of those resources will help build out a mutually supportive biotech ecosystem, Halvorsen says, from the smallest of ideas to viable, commercially marketable companies.

“We’re getting the word out,” he says. “Let them really see what’s going on. It’s not a one-off company here or there. These hospitals aren’t going away; the research base is not going away. Therefore, innovation and startup companies are not going away.”