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An Insider’s Look at Texas Health Catalyst

March 30, 2017

Launched in 2015, Dell Medical School’s Texas Health Catalyst program identifies and supports solutions that have the potential to address clinical unmet needs. At the close of our second cycle, I talked to recent awardees about their experience with the program, their prospects using Texas Health Catalyst funding and support, and their plans for clinical translation.

The 2016-17 winning projects and awardees include:

Low-Cost Smart Intraoperative Imaging System for Laparoscopic Endometriosis Surgery

  • Thomas Milner, Ph.D., Biomedical Engineering, Cockrell School of Engineering
  • Livia Eberlin, Ph.D., Department of Chemistry, College of Natural Sciences
  • Arnold Estrada, Ph.D., Biomedical Engineering, Cockrell School of Engineering
  • Michael Breen, M.D., Dell Medical School / Seton Healthcare Family

Next Generation Microbial Therapeutics

Dissolvable Film for Storage, Transport and Delivery of Thermolabile Therapeutics


Nishi Viswanathan: What got you interested in Texas Health Catalyst?

Thomas Milner: We learned about the program from a UT announcement. We already had an ongoing collaboration between several members of the team. All collaborators were interested in working on an unmet clinical need and believed our unique team could provide a benefit to treating endometriosis.

Bryan Davies: Our project team has a strong motivation to translate our research for real world use. We believed Texas Health Catalyst would help us reach our goals and put us in touch with great industry advisors.

Maria Croyle: At the time, we had filed several patent applications on novel technology developed as part of our effort to create a single dose needle-free Ebola vaccine. We were just starting to garner the interest of several large pharmaceutical companies and knew that participation in the program would help us explore different avenues for getting this technology to the marketplace.

NV: Describe your experience advancing to the consultation phase, meeting with your assigned advisor(s) and preparing for report day.

TM: To be honest, the process was long and sometimes difficult. With the number of people involved, being able to keep some coherence in light of conflicting schedules was a challenge. I think the biggest challenge was maintaining context on the time spent relative to the learning that was gained. We did not always appreciate seeing the forest through the trees.

BD: The consultation phase helped prepare our team for challenges that lie ahead when moving a product to the clinic. Our project advisor was very knowledgeable and helpful in clarifying specific goals to promote the potential for commercialization.

MC: Each of the advisors to my team provided very unique perspectives on our technology based upon their own experiences in the industry and as health care professionals. During the initial sessions, they really beat up the technology. This was tough to hear since we had been working non-stop on it since 2009; however, these conversations helped us build a solid case for how our project was novel and helped us find several new applications for it. The overall experience really sharpened our skills to pitch our technology and we even entered several pitch competitions funded by large pharma and several investing firms. I hope in the next few months that we have some great news to report on the outcome of these events!

NV: Do you feel like this structure and process helped you rethink your project in new ways?

TM: We now probably have a better overall perspective on the problem and the process of commercialization. The process helped us streamline our activities to reach milestones that will be impactful.

BD: It has helped us focus on the stages after discovery that are essential to move our products towards the clinic.

MC: Our technology was initially developed for transfer to and use in developing countries — and our focus primarily on how it would improve patient acceptance and compliance. Discussions with advisors and corporate entities introduced to the team through Texas Health Catalyst helped us realize the impact the technology would have on manufacturing and distribution. The discussions encouraged us to meet with sponsors in these spaces about collaborative projects that could lead to licensing of our technology.

NV: Do you have any suggestions on how the program could be improved?

TM: I think Texas Health Catalyst could explain in more detail what the program is truly looking for so that applicants have a clear understanding of what will be expected of them while going through the process

BD: More funding. Easier said than done. Biotech is the most expensive startup industry. All UT biotech startups have either moved to the coasts or received funding from there. Standard biotech start requires $1-3 million in the first three years. How does UT help build an investment environment in Austin?

MC: There is a reasonable time commitment needed for teams to move through each stage of the application process, meet their team members and project advisors, really digest their meaningful feedback and develop a final presentation for the report-out event. This was really not apparent to me when I first sent in my one page project summary last spring, and it should be highlighted to applicants that there are activities that require time commitments once you reach the final round of the competition.

NV: Would you recommend applying to the program? Any advice for potential applicants interested in Texas Health Catalyst?

TM: Yes, I would recommend the program. If investigators have a clear understanding of the learning dynamic going in, I think the satisfaction would be much higher.

BD: Yes. Apply if you are interested in thinking about what it takes to really commercialize your work. Don’t do it for the money.

MC: Yes! If you’re having difficulty finding the time or resources to explore various avenues to get a given technology to market, this is an excellent way to do that! I tend to favor focusing on the science and making sure our technology is solid, but this experience allowed me to carve out time to meet and talk with venture capitalists that I would not have had access to otherwise.

NV: What do you hope to accomplish with Texas Health Catalyst funds?

TM: Demonstrate we can make an impact on endometriosis. I think we have a great team — and we simply need to do the work.

BD: Final proof-of-concept experiments for new company launch.

MC: Through discussions with our catalyst advisors and those in the industry, we have identified several questions concerning large-scale manufacturing and in vivo performance of our technology that when answered would greatly heighten interest in it. The data garnered from these studies will serve as preliminary data for future product pitches and grant applications.

NV: According to you, what makes Texas Health Catalyst unique compared to other funding sources available at UT?

TM: The answer to that is clear - Texas Health Catalyst offers investigators a learning experience that is unlike any other program. In fact, I am not aware of any funding agency (inside or outside UT) that provides the same breadth and depth of consultation on an idea — this is the tremendous value of the program. The better this learning process is executed the stronger the entire medical research enterprise at UT will be stimulated — I think this program is a great start.

BD: There are other broader entrepreneurship and innovation groups on campus but Texas Health Catalyst has a biomedical focus.

MC: For me it was like getting some practical training in business and investment, while getting useful feedback from those outside the academic realm about our technology. It was also great to mingle with other creative inventors on campus and learn about their effort to get their technology to market — I don’t really know of another funding mechanism that allows you to meet other applicants and learn along with them during the application process!

Next Steps

Texas Health Catalyst will support these three teams (and several others) throughout 2017 by providing connections to clinicians, industry guidance and seed funding.

The third cycle of Texas Health Catalyst launches in the summer of 2017 with a new Request for Proposals (RFP) targeting neurology and mental health in addition to the current RFPs in women’s health and musculoskeletal conditions. Based on feedback from advisors and applicants, the program cycles will be shorter and we will provide more details on what potential applicants can expect during the process.

Nishi Viswanathan, MBBS, MBA, is associate director of translational research & innovation at Dell Medical School, and leads several innovation initiatives, including Texas Health Catalyst. Viswanathan has a unique background in life sciences, previously working at the Austin Technology Incubator, leading marketing and business development at a med tech startup and directing research related to cancer. She earned an MBA from the McCombs School of Business at UT Austin and trained as a medical doctor at the University of Mumbai. She aims to make substantial improvements to healthcare outcomes through research, innovation and translation of promising ideas and technologies to the clinic.