The Business of Improving Health

The brain — and the body. In health innovation, academia’s ideation is often made real by industry’s execution.

An unusual hub embedded at The University of Texas at Austin enables these vital partnerships, in addition to providing support for commercialization and entrepreneurship.

The Texas Health CoLab at Dell Medical School provides resources for commercializing an invention, launching a company or collaborating with industry. The results so far: award-winning technologies, local and international partnerships, and a renewed level of interest around the health tech industry in Austin.

“To create economically sustainable models of care that work for everyone, you have to get the right minds in the room. Texas Health CoLab is a clear solution matching academic medicine with product development and business expertise,” says Chris Laing, executive director of Capital City Innovation, the nonprofit shaping a new Innovation District in downtown Austin anchored by Dell Med.

Accelerating Innovation of Health Products & Services

The foundation of the Texas Health CoLab is in the programs it oversees to support researchers and entrepreneurs in accelerating innovation of health products and services.

One is Texas Health Catalyst, hosted in collaboration with the Cockrell School of Engineering, College of Natural Sciences, College of Pharmacy and Office of Technology Commercialization. An annual cycle seeks promising innovations with the potential to improve the value of care. Awards range from seed funding to customized guidance from industry and clinical experts.

Texas Health Catalyst played a key role in the early development of the MasSpec Pen, a cancer-detecting mass spectrometer “pen” that allows surgeons to identify cancerous tissue in 10 seconds — 150 times faster than previous technology.

Further down the funnel, Dell Med’s commercialization team works with clinicians, entrepreneurs and business experts to identify pain points impeding health transformation and provide the skills needed to evaluate proposed solutions. It’s a critical function, though one that’s unusual to academic medicine, which traditionally has been far more effective at coming up with good ideas than validating a market, writing a business plan or launching a product.

Commercialization is another way we’re rethinking health. It provides an alternative funding source for the long-term sustainability of the med school while enabling health transformation through innovative new products and services.

Mellie Price
Executive Director of Commercialization
Managing Director, Texas Health CoLab

Mellie Price, a veteran Central Texas entrepreneur and the Texas Health CoLab’s managing director, sees the hub’s role as “connecting the dots.”

“We’re embedded in a top-tier research university, at a medical school with the capacity to offer deep clinical, research and subject-matter expertise in value-based care, population health and the future of health,” she says. “It’s a rich opportunity for investors, entrepreneurs and industry. At the same time, we’re able to provide our innovators with expertise in go-to-market strategy that puts their ideas into the health ecosystem efficiently and effectively.”

That speed and direction matters in health care. Last year, it helped a real-time, shared decision-making software make its way to the Musculoskeletal Institute at UT Health Austin, where executive director Kevin Bozic uses it to help patients decide what treatments will best meet their individual goals. The idea for the tool was Bozic’s.

“As a practicing surgeon and a health services researcher, I frequently encounter clinical scenarios that are ripe for disruption in terms of opportunities to improve patient outcomes and/or reduce the overall cost of care,” he says. “Our partnership with Texas Health CoLab gives us access to the expertise and infrastructure necessary to explore opportunities for commercialization of these ideas, and potentially bring these new innovations to market.”

In cases where there’s no match between a validated idea and an established company, the Texas Health CoLab may partner an innovator with an experienced entrepreneur, or co-founder in residence, interested in taking a start-up to the next level. In addition, Austin Community Foundation manages a commercialization fund that provides philanthropic seed money to the most promising fledgling companies in the Texas Health CoLab portfolio.

Jonathan Levy, a partner at a private investment firm in Austin, is one of the fund’s donors. He and his wife, Leigh, view their gift as a long-term investment — just with an atypical return profile.

“In addition to creating jobs and economic opportunity, Dell Med can generate widespread social impact through the incubation of innovative health care solutions,” he says. “It was important for us to support those new discoveries that could positively change our world.”

Attracting Collaborators With International Scope

Another track, WorkSpaces @ Texas Health CoLab, is a set of co-location spaces in Dell Med’s Health Discovery Building that bring together world-class companies and people passionate about improving health through multi-disciplinary collaboration:

  • In 2017, Merck & Co. Inc. located its newest information technology hub in the WorkSpaces. Others are in Prague, Singapore, and Branchburg, New Jersey.
  • Similarly, the Association of British Healthcare Industries chose the Texas Health CoLab as the home for its “ABHI Innovation Hub” — a venture that offers U.K. companies the opportunity to develop their U.S. business.

These early ventures encapsulate the growing interest in Austin as a hotbed of health tech. In 2018, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce reported that more than 40 life science companies started operations in Austin in just two years, and the number of companies expressing interest to the chamber had doubled — an increase that leadership attribute to Dell Med’s opening in 2014.

“Having partners who are doing dedicated work to bring devices and services to market allows for the kind of partnerships that can be difficult to come by in an academic setting,” says Ruben Rathnasingham, assistant dean of health product innovation. “Having greater options for collaboration across the city means exponentially more opportunities to improve health outcomes locally.”