Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area are giants in healthcare innovation. Austin is poised to join them by becoming a nerve center for innovation in health, not just health care — and the reality may be closer than you think.
Say you start in the heartland. Middle America. Ask any doctor, researcher or investor you find to point you toward one of the country’s two centers of innovation in technology and health. Start walking.
Eventually, you’ll find yourself staring at an ocean view, maybe in Boston, the intersection of Ivy League and med-tech startup culture. Or you might be 3,000 miles from New England, in California — a land of milk and honey fueled by Left Coast academic prowess and the frenetic energy of Silicon Valley.
Half a world away — metaphorically, at least — is Austin, Texas, a once-sleepy college town with an affinity for live music and a flair for the original. The city, suddenly one of the fastest-growing in the United States, has long been an unlikely locus for liberals, landlocked by miles upon miles of red-state conservatism.
Now, politicians, academics and healthcare providers alike are betting big on the chance that the city can buck another status quo, becoming a third hub for the sort of thought leadership and industry disruption that’s required to revolutionize what many in America see as a broken healthcare system. The people of Travis County, where Austin is the seat, are invested as well, with $35 million in local property taxes being allocated each year to the new Dell Medical School, established on the campus of the University of Texas in 2013 after voters approved a funding measure in 2012.
Leaders steering the medical school and the burgeoning health district it anchors say success hinges on the university itself.
The campus, which a quirk of history left without a medical school after state officials in 1891 compromised to locate what would become the University of Texas Medical Branch School of Medicine in the then-thriving port city of Galveston, has a tradition of contributions to health care and innovation. Officials say it’s also committed to fostering a collaborative environment that aids in accelerating the traditionally lengthy path from lab-based discovery to techniques, treatments and cures that enhance or extend life.
Medical research is highly regulated because of the risks to human health involved, yet positive research outcomes promise huge rewards in the form of treatments of and cures for disease. That’s why private money for the development phase is required, explains Cockrell School of Engineering professor George Georgiou, PhD, whose initial public offering (IPO) of biopharmaceutical company Aeglea raised $50 million and was the first IPO for an Austin company in 2016.
“Texas is more isolated and there are more barriers,” he says.“The tech industry is famously relationship-driven, which means that an innovation not hailing from the investor-known regions of Boston or California is harder to get to market. But the discovery phase has an advantage at a university like UT. We are built for that kind of research,” says Georgiou, co-inventor of 87 issued and pending U.S. patents and 18 technology suites that have been licensed to major pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. That said, an environment tailor-made for discovery only gets you so far, Georgiou explains. “You have to have that mechanism to move translational research to market, or tech transfer.”
The University of Texas’ solution? An environment that acknowledges the roadblocks researchers often encounter during development and that works to remove them. The university’s Office of Technology Commercialization provides researchers with information about the commercialization process, promotes cross-disciplinary collaboration and assists in the formation of startups.
Says its director, Dan Sharp, JD: “UT’s Office of Technology Commercialization advances the university’s research by providing faculty with the resources, knowledge and tools to protect and promote their discoveries. We’re able to maximize research impact through our evaluation, protection, marketing and licensing of inventions, software and discoveries originating on campus.”
Building on Strengths
Brent Iverson, PhD, a chemist who grew up in Silicon Valley, completed his doctorate at California Institute of Technology and is now dean of UT’s School of Undergraduate Studies, agrees that the right mechanisms are in place to facilitate the transfer of discovery to market. “We’ve come a long way,” he says, highlighting the increased visibility and activity of the Office of Technology Commercialization combined with resources like Austin Technology Incubator. Together, Iverson, Georgiou and chemical engineering professor Jennifer Maynard, PhD, engineered a drug for the treatment and prevention of inhalation anthrax that the Food and Drug Administration approved this year.
In reflecting on how the university’s environment facilitates innovation and transfer to the general public, Iverson notes that both faculty and student contributions are key. “Some of the biggest impact has come from our students. It was UT students who created Whole Foods, Dell and CarMax,” he says. “Jennifer Maynard was a student during the discovery phase on the anthrax breakthrough, and perhaps the bigger impact is her training. She’ll be able to do so much more as a tenured faculty member, where she’ll reach other students and amplify her impact beyond specific cures for specific diseases.”
Maynard credits Georgiou and Iverson with helping her understand translational research — and how to frame it for her own students. “I hope to teach them not just the science and research, but the applied innovation,” she says. “For example, I want to involve students in things like patent discussions with companies that we share licensing with.”
Meanwhile, her own research continues — and Maynard is working with a medical doctor on her latest project. She thinks of her investigation in terms of molecules. Her partner, Michael Kaleko, MD, PhD, who is senior vice president of research and development at Synthetic Biologics Inc., does not. “He can see how the work translates to organs, to people and to their health,” she says.
Creating an Ecosystem
With the advent of Dell Med, there will be more opportunities for researchers like Maynard — and they’ll be within walking distance.
Dell Med’s vision is a vital, inclusive health ecosystem with community at the heart of its mission to revolutionize how people get and stay healthy. UT’s Vice President for Research, Daniel Jaffe, PhD, is particularly excited about the possibilities. “As the first new medical school built on a top-tier, Association of American Universities research campus in decades, we have a unique opportunity to look at everything through a new lens,” he explains.
Jaffe considers the Austin location a boon. “With the medical school firmly tied to an academic campus in a young and growing high-tech city and with its strong commitment to rethink health care for the benefit of the broader community, we have a chance to break new ground in research, innovation, quality medical care, and the health of the population we are part of,” he says.
The school’s leaders emphasize the community connection, bolstered by partnerships with Seton Healthcare Family and Central Health, which together provide care for Travis County’s indigent. “What makes Dell Med different is that we are measured by the improvement we make on the health of the community,” explains Ruben Rathnasingham, PhD, director of Texas Health Catalyst — one of the school’s earliest initiatives. The program helps to identify unmet clinical needs in the region, and leverages the strengths of the University of Texas and industry leaders to help transform good ideas into commercial products and services.
A collaboration of UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering, College of Natural Sciences, College of Pharmacy, Office of Technology Commercialization and Seton, Texas Health Catalyst prides itself on supporting innovation across the gap between early academic discovery and product development. Rathnasingham led a similar program at the University of California San Francisco, and Texas Health Catalyst draws from the foundational ideas that originated with that project. Says Rathnasingham: “The purpose is to bring industry, clinical and product development insights as far upstream of the research process as possible, to inform researchers and entrepreneurs of the opportunities and challenges in translational research and foster public-private partnerships. At UT, we’ve adapted it to the strengths of UT researchers and the vision and goals of the medical school.
“The catalyst program combines customized clinical and industry expertise with seed funding for research that promises to improve health outcomes while maintaining or reducing costs.”
Rathnasingham hopes to expand the model beyond UT and its immediate partners. “A medical school that works with the broader community to tackle unmet needs we experience in our health system every day — and that follows through with clinical and industry guidance and support for the most promising solutions — can be a powerful driver for innovations that matter,” he says.
Finding New Approaches
Dell Med’s Design Institute for Health, directed by Stacey Chang and Beto Lopez, is the result of a collaboration with UT’s College of Fine Arts that provides leadership in just that type of “people-centered” thinking. Chang, an engineer, and Lopez, a designer, came to the University of Texas from IDEO, an award-winning global design firm that takes a human-centered, design-based approach to helping organizations innovate and is responsible for such ubiquitous technologies as the computer mouse.
Design attempts to solve problems through an iterative, creative questioning process that starts with observation of people within their surroundings. “Complex systems are about people and how they interact. It’s nuanced,” says Chang, who was managing director of the healthcare practice at IDEO before joining UT. “It’s super hard to develop conditions that encourage people’s behavior.
“The Design Institute is taking design and applying it to healthcare business models, service delivery, built environments, community outreach and organizational capacity. We are taking a methodology used in most of commercial industry and applying it to health care, an industry that has been lagging behind. Universities have never been considered as commercial entities; it’s about academic value instead. Having this type of methodology embedded inside a medical school has simply never happened before. In this way, Dell Medical School is a progenitor of new approaches to delivering care. We’re also enabling a skill set for our students, teaching them to practice design as a tool for problem-solving so they are not just practitioners, but leaders.”
David G. Lowe, PhD, co-founder, president, and CEO of Aeglea, the biopharmaceutical company, sees the potential — for himself and for others. “The University of Texas is emerging locally as a biotechnology and healthcare innovation hub,” he says. “Our understanding is that Aeglea is the first biotech spinout from UT to be set up in the city. I’m proud of the accomplishment, but I think we can expect to see many more companies emerge from UT as the medical school provides an added dimension to all elements of biomedical research and innovation, from drug discovery to medical devices and healthcare IT.”
Dell Med welcomed its first 50 students in June. Leaders say that milestone is only the beginning — for Austin and beyond. As Chang says, “We’re developing insights that we are not only encouraged to share, but required to share, for the greater good of the community.”