Houston’s Biotech Innovation Community Reacts to Robbins Exit at TMC

Xconomy Texas — 

Houston—The Texas Medical Center has accepted the resignation of its CEO, Robert Robbins, who has been chosen to be the next president of the University of Arizona.

O. Holcombe Crosswell, chairman of the TMC board, said in a statement Wednesday that the TMC wishes Robbins well. “We thank Dr. Robbins for his contributions that have inspired and united the TMC member institutions on a bold vision to transform our medical city into a leading destination for life sciences,” he said.

Croswell added that the TMC board is “fully committed” to the strategic plan put in place by Robbins that prioritized commercialization efforts, including the TMC3 project, a 30-acre district focused on life sciences commercialization in the same vein as Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA, or Mission Bay in San Francisco.

Christen David, a TMC spokeswoman, did not comment when asked about who will lead the TMC in the interim and when the TMC board will start its search for Robbins’ replacement.

The news rippled through Houston’s biotech innovation community, a group that was spotlighted by Robbins-led initiatives that made the TMC a high-profile sponsor in health-related commercialization.

Ann Tanabe, CEO of BioHouston, said news of Robbins’ departure represents “a sad day for us.”

“I hope that the TMC board, with whatever successor they will choose, will come with that continued vision and passion for innovation and translational research,” she says.

As the TMC board was meeting Wednesday, Robbins was touring Arizona campus, meeting with various university staff and students, and readying for a community forum this afternoon in Tucson, AZ, where the university is located. The Arizona Board of Regents said it plans to finalize Robbins’ selection and begin contract negotiations at a special meeting March 13.

Robbins came to Houston in late 2012 to lead the corporation that governs the medical center and he led a transformation in how the corporation supports the innovation that comes from both within the TMC and the broader Houston biotech community.

Most notably, in the last two years, the TMC has created the TMCx accelerator, which brings in young health IT and medical device companies, and a biodesign fellowship that can help medical entrepreneurs see commercial opportunities. In addition, both JLabs and AT&T have set up incubator and accelerator spaces that work with local Houston life sciences companies.

The TMC innovation institute, located in a former Nabisco cookie factory, has become a de facto community square for organizations focused on life sciences innovation and the tech startups in Houston more broadly. In the last year, the TMC has hosted a number of organizations in both small meetups as well as larger gatherings such as the demo day for student accelerator programs at the University of Houston and Rice University.

Atul Varadhachary, managing partner at Houston’s Fannin Innovation Studio, says those programs are firmly in place and, so, should not see any loss of momentum. “JLabs is here, the AT&T Connected Health foundry is here; those are not going away,” he says.

“The caveat is if a new leader comes in with different priorities but [at this moment] we are still on people’s minds when they think about innovation and Houston,” he says. “That’s a big positive.”

Still, Tanabe says, “anytime you have the CEO change, that’s a significant void, and at that kind of strategic level, things do have to slow down.”

Nadia Morris heads AT&T’s Foundry for Connected Health, which is the most recent outside partner brought in to be part of TMC’s commercialization efforts.

“I don’t see the desire for innovation drying up,” she says. “We are completely committed to our relationship with the medical center.”