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Houston Healthcare Start-ups: Starting to achieve escape velocity from the gravitational pull of oil & gas

On March 2, 2018, JLABS @ TMC celebrated its second anniversary. The pace of our evolution over the past 24 months continues to be rapid. We started with 22 companies, and have grown to just under 50, we have quadrupled the size of our device prototyping labs in order to meet the ongoing demands of our medical device resident companies, and our internal team continues to grow in order to support the needs of the many companies on our site.  While these are meaningful growth metrics for us, we find that we are just a part of an emerging healthcare start-up dynamic here in Houston

The growth we are witnessing here has surpassed the expectations that I had when I moved here a year ago from Boston. Our neighbors are the strong team within the TMC Innovation Institute who run the TMCx accelerator program sponsored by the Texas Medical Center.  They opened their doors a year before us and welcomed their first cohort of 21 companies. In three short years, they have had 6 cohorts and hosted 108 companies from around the globe. The current cohort of 22 health tech companies is drawn internationally, only 3 are from Houston, with 20% coming to Texas from Silicon Valley.  Here at JLABS we have welcomed 7 of their graduating companies to stay in Houston and become JLABS residents.

In addition to the accelerator program, the TMC Innovation Institute at 2450 Holcombe also holds X+, a co-working space for healthcare companies that now houses 70 life science companies.  J&J’s Center for Device Innovation is also located here, run by Billy Cohn, and now staffed with over 10 J&J machinists and engineers.  So, in just three short years, this place has gone from being a former cookie factory, to a vibrant life sciences community housing over 175 different healthcare startups, employing hundreds of people, that you could meet here on any given day. I walk down the halls, and I am consistently challenged to remember names of people, companies, and technologies.  This close proximity creates crucial connection points for entrepreneurs, scientists, and venture capitalists that previously did not exist in H-town. And if you ask them, they will all tell you that this is absolutely critical to their success.

With the commitment of time and capital from Bill McKeon and his team at the Texas Medical Center, in addition to our neighbors the institute including BioHouston, TMC BioDesign and angelMD, we have helped establish a strong foundation in Houston for the growing life science community. Houston has begun to creep up on the short list for the hot spots for innovation, and when you come here you can see why. We have all helped to build it, and start-ups have responded by coming. It is our goal to recruit and foster these companies to find continued success, whether that’s in the clinic or through financial partnering. Johnson & Johnson Innovation helps to provide the connective tissue to the east and west, while the Texas Medical Center provides access to one of the largest concentrations of patient populations in the world.

We will continue to look ahead, as more growth at this site is planned. It is an absolute kick to be here every day and be a part of it.  So, if you’re into solving some of the challenges we all face in healthcare, or curious to see for yourself, head down to the former cookie factory. We’ll be happy to show you why the Innovation Institute at 2450 Holcombe is adding rocket fuel to Houston’s growing healthcare footprint (pardon the pun, but it is Houston…).

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Imagine being a transplant patient, and you’ve just received the bone marrow transplant you desperately need to survive.  Unfortunately, a full recovery is not a given. Immediately after a transplant, before the immune system reconstitutes, the patients are very vulnerable to infection. In fact, research shows that more than 27,000 patients are projected to receive allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplant (allo-HSCT) in 2017 (US and EU), and up to 70 percent of those patients may suffer from a severe viral infection1.  Unfortunately, today there are no FDA approved drugs or effective experimental therapies to treat most of these infections, but ViraCyte is on a mission to change that.                            

ViraCyte, a resident company at JLABS @ TMC in Houston, Texas, focuses on combating these infections. Spun out of Baylor College of Medicine in 2013, the company’s mission is simple: to safely and effectively treat viral infections that attack people with weakened immune systems. ViraCyte’s therapies infuse patients with activated T cells that are highly specific for attacking viruses; these T cells are obtained from normal donors and following activation and expansion, can be kept cryopreserved for years until patients need them.

“I was a pediatric critical care physician prior to joining ViraCyte, and some of the most challenging cases I faced were severe viral infections after stem cell transplant,” said Brett Giroir, M.D., President and CEO of ViraCyte. “Typically when patients contract a virus like this, there’s nothing we can do except to provide supportive care and wait for the immune system to reconstitute.” When I saw the work that ViraCyte was doing, I knew I had to be a part of it.”

The results are positive and encouraging. In the past 8 months, ViraCyte has released its phase 1 and phase 2 clinical results. In phase 1, which focused on the safety and efficacy of Viralym-C, the therapy controlled infections within six weeks of infusion for all ten patients with drug-refractory CMV infection. In the phase 2 results, Viralym-M, ViraCyte’s flagship therapy, achieved a 92% overall clinical response after a single infusion and demonstrated efficacy against all five targeted viruses.

Based on the results of phase 1, ViraCyte was granted a Fast Track designation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in early January of 2017.

“Fast Track designation emphasizes the importance of new cell therapies, like Viralym-C, which holds unique promise in treating severe infections in patients with weakened immune systems such as adults and children following stem cell transplants,” said Dr. Giroir. “This was a huge step forward for us as a company.”

The success didn’t stop there.  ViraCyte continued to get positive results and shortly thereafter, Viralym-C was granted an Orphan Drug designation by the FDA. Orphan Drug designation qualifies sponsors who are developing therapies for rare diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 people in the United States for certain development incentives, including tax credits for clinical research costs, frequent FDA interactions, and protocol assistance. 

Although ViraCyte focused on the stem cell transplant population first, their roadmap includes all patients suffering from viruses due to weakened immune systems. Other organizations are starting to take notice, and in early July ViraCyte announced that the NIH National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) awarded the company a $3 million Phase IIB Small Market Award under the NIH Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The Program supports the development of innovative technologies addressing rare diseases and/or young pediatric populations to advance the commercialization of promising new products. With this new capital, ViraCyte will perform advanced clinical development of a T cell immunotherapy for BK virus in stem cell transplant recipients. BK virus causes severe disease including hemorrhagic cystitis and nephritis and can lead to renal failure, hemorrhage, and death in transplant recipients.

Additionally, ViraCyte was recently awarded a $750,000 Orphan Products Clinical Trials Grant by the FDA Office of Orphan Product Development (OOPD) for a Phase I clinical trial of Viralym-A in stem cell transplant recipients with Adenovirus.  The OOPD funds the clinical development of products for use in rare diseases for which there are limited or no current therapeutic options. There are currently no FDA-approved treatment options for BK virus or Adenovirus.

With all ViraCyte’s success in the clinic, the most impactful is that on the patient population. Because of the clinical results, and market need for these therapies, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) Oversight Committee recommended funding for a product development research grant totaling $8.99M to support the clinical development of Viralym-M.

So, it begs the question, why would a company with solid funding, strong ties to academia, and nationally recognized leadership come to JLABS? According to Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Ann M. Leen, it’s all about the infrastructure. “ViraCyte could not have happened without financial backers, professional advisers and JLABS. Here, we have everything we need to be successful. The labs are state of the art, we have access to expertise inside Johnson & Johnson, and the infrastructure allows us to focus solely on the science.”

Congratulations ViraCyte!


ImmunoMet: A JLABS @ TMC resident finds growth in shrinking cancer cells

Dr. Ben Cowen is no stranger to the life sciences scene. With more than 20 years of experience in big pharma, one could reasonably assume he'd be ready to slow down. Ben completed his National institute of Health post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 90s, and hasn't stopped since. He held multiple positions at Merck and Shire, and then he sharpened his saw with startups. With his experience, it's no wonder that he's a sought-after mentor and a natural leader in the JLABS @ TMC ecosystem.

Again, this is a typical point in one's career when you begin to think about sun setting into a comfortable retirement, but not Ben. He laughed at the suggestion and cut me off by saying he's never worked harder in his life than he has since joining ImmunoMet; and he's loving every minute of it.

"The reason I'm here is because we have the potential opportunity to save thousands of lives," said Ben Cowen, CEO of ImmunoMet. "Our drugs address a huge unmet need in the oncology space, and the data is extremely promising. We at ImmunoMet have the potential to make a real difference."

According to Ben, ImmunoMet is a private biotech company that utilizes cellular metabolism to develop both anti-tumor and immuno-oncology therapies. Founded in July 2015 as a spinoff of Korean pharmaceutical company, HanAll BioPharma, ImmunoMet started as an oncology passion project by the founding CEO, Sung-Wuk Kim, whose personal experience with cancer drove him to action.  Under Kim's leadership, HanAll heavily invested in oncology discovery, and when the program became successful, HanAll spun the assets off into ImmunoMet. The company stayed in Korea for the first year, and then applied to JLABS in Houston at the Texas Medical Center to establish a U.S. presence. 

That's when a recruiter found Ben, showed him the technology, and he jumped at the chance to take the helm in the U.S. Although he permanently resides in Philadelphia, Ben commutes to Houston twice a month to spend time with his team, which is made up of six full time researchers who relocated to Houston from Seoul.

Ben shared that since coming to JLABS ImmunoMet has hit milestone after milestone. In the last few months, the company began its first Phase 1 clinical trial studies for its lead candidate IM156 at Yonsei Medical Center (South Korea), a Sister Center of MD Anderson Cancer Center; it appointed Ben as its new CEO; named two oncology heavyweights to its board of directors; and recently added a  chief medical officer and chief financial officer. 

"It all starts with good science, and then you get the snowball effect," Cowen told me in a conference room at JLABS @ TMC. "Our growth is contributed to the foundation we've built upon solid science, and then we've worked to establish the infrastructure to prepare us to become a Phase 2 company." 

Throughout our conversation, Ben shared that ImmunoMet is currently working on two programs. The lead candidate is IM156, which targets resistant tumors or tumors that have relapsed to standard therapies. IM156 showed promise in animal efficacy data in a number of solid tumors, including Glioblastoma (GBM), and is currently in phase 1 trials.

The second program is IM188, an immuno-oncology therapy that targets immune suppressor cells in a tumor micro environment. IM188 was developed in combination with an anti PD-1 (checkpoint inhibitor) and is showing an increased efficacy in animals with a greater number of responders. Historically in these cases, checkpoint inhibitors work well, but only in 25-30 percent of patients. With ImmunoMet's compound, the preclinical response rate is proving to be much higher.

"Our distinguishing factor is the utilization of cellular metabolism," Ben explained. "Most cancer cells use glycolysis, but some resistant tumors use an OXPHOS pathway for generating energy. We're attacking the energy generation of a cancer cell, and therefore it stops replication, so it starves the cancer so it can no longer grow."  

When asked if being at JLABS has contributed to its success, Ben believes the JLABS model is a perfect fit. "Being in an incubator environment has allowed a very small team of people to progress the science because they can just focus on the science. Our rapid progression occurred because we were able to step into a preexisting infrastructure. The research team could focus on the science, and I could focus on building out our leadership team to get us to this phase." 

Ben's passion and determination was obvious throughout our conversation, and when I asked him what advice he'd give to budding entrepreneurs he said:

"Perseverance is 90 percent of success in biotech. We are in an industry that's laden with failure, and the ability to keep going is what wins. You win in biotech and pharma by doing the smart experiments, killing drugs early that don't work, and pivoting to new opportunities.  Since you're likely to fail, the way to do it is to fail quickly, so you can get to the winning stuff. It's not the success ratio, it's the denominator."

If you ever find yourself in Houston, stop by JLABS @ TMC and ask for some time to chat with Ben. You won't regret it.

For more information about Immunomet, please visit www.immunomet.com.