Elizabeth Jaworski, Ph.D., who studied biochemistry and molecular biology at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, has taken innovation from the lab bench and transformed it into a business.
During her doctoral program, she worked with a professor who invented a technology for next-generation sequencing sample processing.
“I thought we should commercialize it, but at that time I didn’t know much about commercializing actual products,” she said.
Jaworski joined Enventure, a Houston nonprofit that helps students who are medical innovators start businesses, and realized the technology had commercial applications.
“We officially incorporated the company in 2018 and we’ve been developing it ever since,” she said.
Since 2015, the one-year fellowship has united innovators with diverse backgrounds who solve problems by bringing breakthrough products to market. The teams are mentored by leading experts from Texas Medical Center institutions including clinicians, experienced entrepreneurs and industry professionals.
The one-of-a-kind program typically builds each team with medical, business and technical expertise, which is usually one physician, one Ph.D. and one MBA.
“We actually hire them as full-time employees and provide them with salaries and benefits and we give them a substantial discretionary fund. It’s a very unique opportunity. Not many times do entrepreneurs get paid to establish their company and have access to the TMC network overall. We get a percentage of equity in the company, but it’s a fantastic deal for the entrepreneurs,” said Jason Sakamoto, Ph.D., who earned his doctorate in biomedical engineering and joined TMC Innovation in January as a biodesign program strategist. He helped make heart stents for Guidant Corp. in California as a young materials engineer and previously served as an assistant professor and co-chair in the department of nanomedicine at Houston Methodist Research Institute.
This year, COVID-19 brought an unexpected challenge for the 2020-2021 cohort: Getting started the first week of August with social distance and masks for meetings.
Cardiology team added
Previously, TMC Biodesign teams have been assigned to create a medical device or digital platform.
The 2020-2021 cohort of nine fellows includes a third team whose members will work on a cardiology solution with support from Baylor College of Medicine. The interests of Jaworski’s teammate, Ishan Kamat, M.D., MBA, inspired the collaboration’s timing. Tyler Melton, MBA, rounds out the cardiology trio.
As a medical student, Kamat attended a lecture (admittedly for the free food) and heard an engaging physician discuss his passion for medical device innovation in cardiothoracic surgery.
“He made the field seem so accessible. I didn’t even catch his name at the time,” said Kamat, who graduated from Baylor College of Medicine in 2018. “A couple of months later, I find out that the surgeon is Dr. Billy Cohn, who is a huge name here. He’s amazingly accessible. I reached out to him and he said: ‘If you’re really interested, show up.’ He introduced me to TMCx (TMC Innovation’s accelerator) and ever since then, I wanted to become more involved.”
A heart surgeon and medical device inventor, Cohn is also executive director of the Johnson & Johnson Center for Device Innovation (CDI @ TMC)—a TMC Innovation partner housed down the hall at the TMC’s John P. McGovern campus—and vice president for Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices Companies.
The cardiology team’s Baylor College of Medicine mentors are Barbara Trautner, M.D., Ph.D., director of clinical and health services research in the department of surgery, and Scott LeMaire, M.D., vice chair for research in the department of surgery.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health accepted the pair’s proposal for a T32 training grant to fund the preparation of post-doctoral fellows for careers in cardiovascular surgical research. Kamat, who won a fellowship in that program, also wanted to design cardiac devices.
“We wrote the T32 grant with the idea that we would eventually be able to have a joint training program with the TMC Biodesign group and with the arrival of Ishan and his interests, we were able to bring our training programs together,” Trautner said. “Houston is such a good setting for more biotechnology startups given the strength of our medical center.”
LeMaire explained how Kamat will bridge the two programs.
“It allows us to bring a fellow in and put them in an environment where they will learn not just the clinical side and the science side, which they can get from us, but they will learn about the business side and the commercialization side and all of the expertise required to actually get a product or idea into patients—and that opportunity was just too good for us to pass up,” he said.
Baylor and TMC will share the equity stake in the cardiology project.
Building on success
TMC Biodesign has spun out at least eight companies. Alleviant Medical, launched from the 2016-2017 class, received TMC Venture Fund investment to advance its interatrial shunt that provides pressure relief for patients with heart failure. The last class produced TYBR Health and its hydrogel spray that reduces post-surgery scar formations, known as adhesions, and helps accelerate tissue regeneration.
“I think founding companies is really exciting. After doing it one time, my career aspiration was to be a serial founder. I didn’t even know that was a career choice,” Jaworski said. “I think this was the absolute perfect opportunity to do that. You’re literally getting paid to start a company. They give you so many resources and the network is absolutely incredible through this program.”
It’s the place where veterinarian Laura Ortiz-Velez, DVM, Ph.D., who earned her second doctorate in virology and microbiology from Baylor College of Medicine, feels she can advance her career. She already was working on her own company, based on technology developed at Baylor, to help inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) patients monitor intestinal information at home and believes that experience strengthened her fellowship application.
“The biodesign program is attractive because it’s about finding a great interdisciplinary team that complements your skills. You want to make a difference. You want to find a need you can help with and apply your knowledge to translate it into a product,” she said.
Ortiz-Velez was selected for the medical device team and offered a preview of where they’re headed.
“Neurology and orthopedics are very attractive areas to us because we have backgrounds in those and they are both really hot right now,” she said.
TMC Biodesign bridges the gap between other TMC Innovation programs. TMC Alpha works with everyone from grassroots tinkerers to scientists in the earliest stages of ideas or products to help them understand what it takes to become an entrepreneur. TMCx is the accelerator for young companies. TMCx+ and TMCxi provide office space for companies that want to grow in the innovation ecosystem.
“These people are leaving their clinical practices and potential professional next steps to do this program. They understand that this is an amazing opportunity to focus their careers as entrepreneurs under the safety net of guaranteed salaries,” Sakamoto said. “They know this is real. This is not an exercise. This is their life. This is their future.”