Latest Class of Digital Health Startups Debuts at TMCx Accelerator

Houston—Around 600 entrepreneurs, investors, and others from Houston’s venture and healthcare communities turned out for the TMCx accelerator’s digital health demo day Thursday—many for the first time.

Sunil Sharma, CEO of biomedical equipment seller Sunbelt Medical in Houston, was one of those. He said he’s been interested in making healthcare more efficient and cost-effective since the late 1970s when he was director of management engineering at St. Luke’s, Texas Children’s Hospital, and Texas Heart Institute.

“I would love to see TMC identify more businesses, even a small business like myself, as possible partners where they can do more projects and studies to help promote quicker development,” he said. “If I had the money, I would definitely invest in some of these companies.”

Twenty-one digital health startups presented technologies designed to improve medication management and remote care, and tackle behavioral and neurological ailments. Startups focused on how software and artificial intelligence tools could be used to streamline prior authorization for medications and procedures, develop customized drug dosages for patients, and apply cognitive computing techniques to radiology.

“I think the TMCx folks have done a terrific job of creating a magnet and telling the story out there and attracting really interesting companies,” said Dan Watkins, managing director at venture firm Mercury Fund, who specializes in life science investment. “You don’t see every accelerator achieve that.”

In separate news, Bill McKeon, TMC’s president and CEO, announced that later this year the TMC will be launching a standardized Institutional Review Board document for use in clinical trials at all of its institutions. A “pan-IRB” has been discussed by many in the biotech ecosystem here as a way to ease access to the TMC’s facilities. Currently, a clinical trial would need to secure separate IRBs at each hospital. “Essentially, we will have one universal front door to the Texas Medical Center,” McKeon said at the event.

The latest cohort of digital health startups was overall a more mature group than previous classes, with some of them already having raised funding (medical imaging company Arterys has $14.2 million raised) and earning revenues (Medable, maker of an AI analytics app.) There were three additional companies in this class—Avalon AI from London, Clipboard Health from San Francisco, and Oncomfort from Houston and Brussels, Belgium—that did not pitch at Thursday’s event.

Rakesh Agrawal, founder and CEO of Snapstream in Houston and a prolific investor, said he was impressed by the pedigree of both the entrepreneurs on stage and the companies they presented. “They had traction; it wasn’t just an idea,” he said. “You have companies that have live projects and paying customers.”

While Watkins said the companies were already farther along than what Mercury Fund typically invests in, Agrawal said he’s still considering making investments.

Investor Larry Lawson, a medical device entrepreneur and member of the GOOSE Society investor group, said he has his checkbook trained at least a half-dozen of the companies he saw pitch. “I think all these companies have good opportunities,” he said, “though, obviously, some better than others.” (Lawson, Agrawal, and Watkins are all mentors to TMCx startups.)

All in all, Mercury Fund’s Watkins said he’s seen a lot of progress in the two years since TMC started its accelerator and hosted its first class. “A year ago, I would’ve said the jury’s still out,” he said. “But they continue to really impress you.”

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