Proxima Aims to Fill CRO Gap for Houston’s Growing Biotech Community

Xconomy Texas — 

Houston—Medical research is big business in Houston, but life science companies sometimes find they’re missing out on the clinical trial services typically provided by contract research organizations (CROs). Proxima Clinical Research wants to fill that gap, and the new company plans a more customer-focused approach to do it.

“We plan to implement ‘agile development’ into CROs,” says Pamela Kennedy, Proxima’s vice president of global business development. “We will offer a help desk. It will be by phone, e-mail, or in-person. A founder can just walk in and say, ‘I have this product.’ They don’t need an appointment.”

That approach, she says, differs from the typically more bureaucratic approach most CROs employ, she says. Another way the organization says it aims to stand apart from competitors is that Proxima will focus exclusively on early stage biotech and medical device companies.

Proxima, which will formally launch next month, was founded in December by Larry Lawson, a Houston-based medical device entrepreneur and GOOSE angel investor, and is located in JLabs @ TMC, next door to the Texas Medical Center’s Innovation Institute.

“A CRO is a missing link in the Houston biotech ecosystem,” Lawson told me last year as he was planning what became Proxima. “We have lots of startups at TMC but when they are ready to go to the FDA and engage with a CRO … they go out of state and sometimes this means the company itself would be lured out of state.”

Focusing on early stage companies is not novel, but “it’s extremely important,” says Jonathan Gertler, managing partner and CEO of life sciences consultancy Back Bay Life Science Advisors in Boston. “When you are starting to grow an ecosystem—which is clearly being done now in the Houston area—what you want to try to do is provide critical infrastructure.”

As part of the larger Texas Medical Center, Kennedy says Proxima has partnerships with hospitals that will enable better access to physicians and patients needed to run and participate in clinical trials. And Gertler says its location at the Innovation Institute gives it direct access to TMCx accelerator startups, as well as startups at JLabs. “You can develop a level of trust just walking the halls and exchanging ideas,” he says.

Many CROs do work with early stage companies, but help to offset the lower fees or lack of fees—since startups typically do not have a lot of capital—by providing these services to larger companies as well, or taking equity stakes in the startups, Gertler says. “It can be very hard to work with [early stage] companies,” he says. “But if you help these companies to reach a cogent business plan and render them fundable, they are going to be very loyal and trust you and that’s an investment that’s worth making.”

Kennedy says Proxima will be able to keep costs low because, since they are located in JLabs, the CRO can use those facilities. “We don’t have to build out lab space,” she says.

Trends in the CRO industry—such as consolidation among big players and increased usage of CROs by big pharma—may also point to a market opportunity in catering to biotech startups. “This is my fourth biopharmaceutical development company that I’ve run as a CEO, and in almost every instance the CROs … they give you little attention,” Marty Driscoll, CEO of Spring Bank Pharmaceuticals, said in a BioPharma Dive article in January. “We get much less attention than the large pharmas where they have preferred arrangements with and the bulk of the revenue is generated in those organizations.”

To round out Proxima’s executive team, Lawson enlisted Kevin Coker, a former executive with McKesson and the US Oncology Network, as co-founder and CEO; and Jaye Thompson, most recently a senior executive in regulatory affairs with Repros Therapeutics (NASDAQ: RPRX) and Opexa Therapeutics, as co-founder and COO. “Proxima will be a great resource for our community—especially for device companies,” which don’t have a CRO dedicated to them at the early stages in the area, says Ann Tanabe, CEO of the life sciences advocacy group BioHouston.

Proxima joins a number of other businesses in the Houston area providing similar services such as Indianapolis-based Pearl Pathways, the oncology-focused MedSource, and Tribe Clinical Development.

So far, Proxima is working with seven early stage companies. “Like the startups, we want to convey an entrepreneurial mindset when we work with them,” Kennedy says.