TMCx, IACS and The Confused Search For More Money

TMCx, IACS and The
Confused Search For More Money


Leonard Zwelling

         If conflict-of-interest has become an issue once again, and members
of the Houston medical community rank high on the government’s list of recipients
of industry’s largess (above), how could turning Houston into a biotech
incubator be far behind as a centerpiece of cocktail conversation at the homes
of the River Oaks crowd?

         The front page of today’s Chronicle discusses the new
incubator that the Texas Medical Center is launching in the Nabisco Building (called
TMCx) in an effort to—once again—convert Houston into the Third Coast of
biotech innovation. This is a discussion that rears its head every few years or
so. I have been through a few iterations myself from the testimony I gave to
the Texas Legislature over 20 years ago, to the Rice BioScience Research
Collaborative on whose planning committee I served for MD Anderson, and on to
field trips to Mission Bay and Seattle on the West Coast to learn how venture
capital and science come together to commercialize academic discoveries.

each proposal comes the same hope. How can the TMC turn all that research into
products, companies and jobs? Isn’t that what CPRIT was all about? That’s not
gone so well thus far, though, has it?

         And the reason Houston is not the Third Coast of biotech is
the same as it was 20 years ago when I was asked by that Legislative panel what
it would take to make Houston a biotech hub.

         “$2 billion into the University of Houston,” I said then.
Now I might say $4 billion.

         As long as the major universities of Texas are located
outside of the area where the medical center and medical talent lie, the
likelihood of building a third coast biotech center remains a dream. Medical
research and patients are, of course, essential. But so are physics, chemistry,
basic biology, law, business and thousands of graduate students and millions of
dollars. All these components are not collected in Houston. But they could be.

         The University of Houston has the space, the leadership and
the talent to grow into a university that could support the parts of biotech
entrepreneurship that currently do not exist in Houston or the TMC. Venture
capital also has to be attracted. That was why I loved the model I saw in
Mission Bay near the campus of UCSF called the Alexandria Building. The company
leases university land, builds a building on the land and leases back half the
space in the building to entrepreneurs within the university community with
commercialization ideas. This lab space IS NOT part of the university and makes
conflict-of-interest issues far easier to address and eliminate. The other part
of the space in the SAME BUILDING is leased to venture capital firms so the
money and the science are down the hall from one another. When I saw this model
on a trip for the administration of MD Anderson in 2007 when the leadership was
considering such a deal, I thought it was a great idea. I guess no one else did
for it never got done despite all that land on the South Campus where it could
have been successful long before IACS was even a dream on the agenda of the
Board of Regents or a questionable CPRIT grant application.

         It is most unfortunate that biotech is not like the movies,
in particular Field of Dreams. If the TMC builds it, they may well NOT come. I
am not sure whether or not an investment in turning Houston into a biotech
force rather than one to secure its identity as THE place for medical care
(including for the uninsured), is the right strategy for the TMC. I do know
that the pieces needed to create a Third Coast biotech consortium still do not
exist here. But they could. Imagine what could have happened if the Emerging
Technology Fund and the CPRIT money, both of which have come under intense
scrutiny with regard to the integrity with which the funds were distributed,
had instead been channeled into U of H and really produced a biotech Third

         I guess we will keep imagining for it seems unlikely to

         I still do not believe that biotech growth is necessary for
the success of the TMC. There is absolutely no reason a great idea spawned at
Baylor, Methodist or MD Anderson cannot be commercialized closer to a major
body of water in California or Boston or the Research Triangle Park. I still
think that the major focus of the TMC ought to be collaborations with health
care providers in the community rather than worry about trying to herd the
mountain lions that occupy the executive suites of the major hospitals on Fannin
into some sort of collaborative business venture that will undoubtedly wind up
as a food fight over money.

         But if the leadership of the TMC and the various big players
in the TMC want to develop biotech, they might consider investing in Houston’s
hometown university, the U of H.

         If you want to play with the big boys on the coasts, you
better have the same pieces they do on the chessboard. So far, I do not believe
Houston does. 

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