Research, Meet Reality

Three cycles in, REthink takes a look at the impact — and the pain points — of acceleration engine Texas Health Catalyst. Its wins could change the way your blood pressure is monitored or your infection is treated. And that’s just to start.

Antibiotics are a mainstay of modern health care. They fight common illnesses like strep throat. They’re an important defense against infection following chemotherapy and surgery. And, increasingly, they’re under threat, as bacteria become “superbugs” adapted to resist them.

At least 2 million people living in the U.S. get an antibiotic-resistant infection each year, and at least 23,000 die, according to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control.

Bryan Davies, a biologist at The University of Texas at Austin, is trying to outrun the superbugs. He’s developed a way to look for new antibiotics to replace the ones that are no longer as effective. It works by engineering bacteria to produce and test molecules that are potentially toxic to themselves, rapidly screening hundreds of thousands of potential drugs for their ability to fight infection.

Davies’ method could generate leads for antibiotics that that kill deadly bacteria like Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Acinetobacter baumannii, which cause potentially lethal infections and have become a scourge of hospitals. But realization of that promise is contingent on industry adoption of his method, which means investor interest — and the money that comes with it — is essential.

In Search of Impact, Sustained Support

Texas Health Catalyst is trying to make sure success happens. The program, run by Dell Medical School, supports researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs university-wide in accelerating the bench-to-market timetable.

What that means can vary. The program helped Davies, the researcher developing the antibiotic discovery mechanism, fund and stage crucial studies that paved the way for additional funding and the creation of a company.

“Support and consulting from Texas Health Catalyst arrived at a vital time and allowed us to complete important validation studies for our approach,” says Davies. “The results helped to solidify investor support and launch a startup based on our discovery platform.”

Nishi Viswanathan, the director of Texas Health Catalyst, cites the support as an example of how the program gets projects “over the hump.”

“Thanks to federal funding, researchers have ample support for basic, or exploratory, work,” says Viswanathan, who previously worked as a physician in her native India and, later, in cancer research in Austin. “What’s missing are impact-focused programs designed for mid-stage research that — with a little boost — has huge potential to address an unmet need.”

Texas Health Catalyst is unusual, too, in its support model. It dedicates customized resources to developing applicants by making sure they receive feedback from related industry early. Later, it includes long-term support like clinical validation — the process of independently verifying the effectiveness of a device or treatment in a real-world setting, such as a UT Health Austin clinic — and introductions to strategic partners.

Most research acceleration programs are unable or unwilling to sustain support, notes Chris Laing, executive director of Capital City Innovation, a nonprofit that supports Austin’s emerging Innovation District. “Texas Health Catalyst takes a long view,” he says. “It recognizes that early-stage commercialization is a marathon, not a sprint, and it applies the right resources at the right time for a project. Importantly, it also does a great job of handing off to the next partner or investor.”

Take the wearable, minimally invasive “tattoo” that inexpensively measures blood pressure developed by Nanshu Lu, a researcher at Texas’ Cockrell School of Engineering. Following support for regulatory consulting and clinical development provided by Texas Health Catalyst, the program is now assisting Lu in negotiating with a major pharmaceutical company on a potential collaboration. Commercialization of the technology promises to bring a better patient experience at lower cost, in pitch-perfect alignment with Texas Health Catalyst’s — and Dell Med’s — commitment to value-based care.

It is one of several such devices and tools: three cycles in, Texas Health Catalyst has vetted 200-plus projects, provided consulting support to 24 teams and awarded $590,000. Combined, funded projects have since received more than $12 million in continuing funding from private companies and the National Institutes of Health, with six start-up companies formed, four products in clinical validation and two licensed by larger companies for further development.

Still, the program has work to do to prove its model. Even with help, it takes years — and millions of dollars of funding — for most research innovation to find its way to the clinic. Writing a list of success stories will take time if improving health and care remains the yardstick. But organizers are committed.

“Dell Medical School wants to fundamentally drive health by creating new models of care and by maintaining a focus on the entire health ecosystem,” says Ruben Rathnasingham, managing director of the Texas Health CoLab, the innovation and entrepreneurship hub that includes the catalyst program. “We’re here to enable that by fostering the necessary innovation. Our model is designed to do it as effectively as possible, for the benefit of as many people as possible.”

The work is critical, says Viswanathan, the program director: “UT’s motto is, ‘What Starts Here Changes the World.’ If it never leaves here, then it cannot change the world.”

Texas Health Catalyst is a collaborative initiative with the Cockrell School of Engineering, College of Natural Sciences, College of Pharmacy and Office of Technology Commercialization at The University of Texas at Austin.