Meeting the future: Fort Worth medical, research events leave the past behind

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TECH Fort Worth

The past and the future of Fort Worth met last week.

The future was evident in two groundbreakings and one industry gathering. The three events epitomized the changing nature of the Fort Worth and North Texas economy, as the area continues to diversify its economy into new areas beyond oil and gas, manufacturing and agribusiness. The three events all pointed to a future with a greater emphasis on medical devices, research and technology.

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At the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, school officials, community leaders and students gathered to begin the construction on the Interdisciplinary Research and Education Building, the first new research building on campus since 2004.

The five-story facility will be home to the UNT System College of Pharmacy, the North Texas Eye Research Institute and the Institute for Molecular and Therapeutic Development.

The building is funded in part by $80 million from the Texas Legislature, secured by the efforts of state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. The school kicked in another $40 million.

About 53,000 square feet will be for research or instructional laboratories. It also will have classrooms, study space, multimedia learning areas, a café, student lounge and administrative offices.

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“[This new facility] is a big opportunity and sets the stage for the school to do much more in the area of biotech and other research areas,” said Dr. Michael R. Williams, president of UNTHSC.

In the 14 years since the last research facility was built, UNTHSC’s annual research budget has increased from $18 million to more than $40 million annually.

The crown jewel is a 3,000-square-foot Healthcare Innovations Lab that will include a medical clinic and learning center with interactive kiosks for visitors. Initial plans call for a pharmacy, exam rooms, an instructional kitchen for healthy cooking classes and a blood lab. The building also will be wired for telemedicine and telepharmacy capabilities.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 27 at the University of Texas at Arlington, ground was broken for a $125 million, 220,000-square-foot Science and Engineering Innovation and Research building, which will be the signature research facility for life and health science research at UTA.

“This is another milestone in our journey to becoming the best university in Texas,” said Vistasp M. Karbhari, UT Arlington president.

The new building will feature state-of-the-art technology and will advance research at UT Arlington by utilizing the modern concept of research lab neighborhoods to drive cross-disciplinary collaboration. Each of the 12 research lab neighborhoods will accommodate multiple teams in a wide range of fields, from biology to bioengineering to computational research to nursing and kinesiology.

The new space will allow researchers to advance innovative solutions in critical health research areas where UTA has already developed strong programs and top-tier faculty excellence, including chronic illness, aging and injury; population health; neuroscience; data analytics; and biomaterials and tissue engineering.

Along with those events last week, executives from major pharmaceutical and medical device companies and leading research institutions from throughout North Texas met with entrepreneurs from start-up and emerging life science businesses, investors and industry support organizations at the “bionorthTX” Life Science Summit on Oct. 26. [See sidebar, Bio Summit].

For companies like Fort Worth’s Ampcare LLC, developments like last weeks are a hopeful sign of the future. Ampcare markets an Effective Swallowing Protocol Therapy System to treat dysphagia, or difficulty in swallowing, a condition that affects more than 18 million Americans.

“I know California takes all the credit for venture capital and such,” said Russ Campbell, president, CEO and one of three founders of the company. “But Dallas-Fort Worth to me has been great. The people in Fort Worth have been huge from TECH Fort Worth, to TCU to the UNT Health Science Center.”

The bionorthTX Summit, which Campbell attended, iindicates the area is seeing growth in the medical device and medical technology area. “Last year there were about 200 people here, this year they said it’s about 400,” he said. “That allowed us to meet a lot more people that we need to meet.”

Funded primarily by personal loans, friends and family and SBA loans, Ampcare operates out of TECH Fort Worth which has helped the company navigate the trials and tribulations of startups. And it’s paid off financially, as quarterly revenues are eight times greater than when the company launched in January 2014.

It’s also paid off personally for the three founders, notes Campbell. “We are achieving our goal as clinicians and as a company to change people’s lives who are dealing with a swallowing disorder,” he said.

For former Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr, who attended the groundbreaking at the UNT Health Science Center, the events last week and growing companies like Ampcare reminded him of the past.

Between 1990 and 1996, defense downsizing resulted in the loss of 44,000 jobs in the Fort Worth area, striking fear for the economic future of the area. A plan was adopted called “Strategy 2000, Diversifying Fort Worth’s Future,” aimed at diversifying the city’s economy beyond defense.

“One of those goals was to increase health care and health care startups and technology,” said Barr. That led to the creation of the Business Assistance Center and TECH Fort Worth. “So when I think about what this [the new UNT Health Science Center building] means, it reminds me of that and that we’ve made some real progress.”


Bio Summit Report

Thirty speakers discussed subjects ranging from the future of cancer therapeutics and diagnostics to the nitty-gritty of developing brand new companies and products at the day-long summit, held at the University of Texas at Arlington.

The mission of bionorthTX is to encourage development of a rich ecosystem that fosters the growth and success of North Texas life science companies as well as strengthening the economy of the North Texas community, Frank Grassler, vice president for technology development at UT Southwestern Medical Center and vice chair of bionorthTX, said in welcoming nearly 400 participants.

The life science industry of North Texas currently includes 40 universities and research institutions and more than 1,000 companies employing 26,000 people. Life science companies are involved in research, development and marketing of biotechnology, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and diagnostic equipment.

Building an entrepreneurial culture across Texas requires partnerships and coalitions and intensive networking with industry and development of state, federal and private funding, said Tom Kowalski, president and CEO of Texas Healthcare and Bioscience Institute in Austin.

“In Texas right now, there are 20,400 on-going clinical trials, No. 3 in the nation,” Kowalski said. Biotech institutes throughout the state contribute $75 billion to the economy each year and employ 92,000 Texans.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams discussed “Building a Scalable and Sustainable Life Science Ecosystem in North Texas” to keynote the afternoon sessions.

Tax abatements and tax incentives help to close deals with new biotech companies, but quality of life incentives including sports, arts, entertainment, weather, outdoor activities, a skilled workforce, innovative housing, universities, medical and nursing schools, outstanding medical services, a strong Chamber of Commerce and transportation including Dallas Fort Worth Airport are what attract new companies to this area, the mayors said.

“Use your bully pulpit,” Price advised, “And, when you lose a business, you have to follow up and find out why. … Sit down and find out what exactly was the deciding factor … and fix it.”

Public education, especially early childhood through third grade is one problem Price is trying to fix.

“If we don’t focus on education, we are losing great companies who might come here,” said Price, who recently kicked off the “Mayor’s Literacy Campaign” with a goal of making sure every third grader reads at least at the third-grade level in third grade.

Only three of 10 third graders currently read at third grade level or above in Fort Worth, the mayor said. “I’ve known for some time that we needed to do more with public education. …The future workforce is in our public schools now.”

Tarrant County has the largest skilled workforce in the Metroplex, “in part because of the incredible job Tarrant County College and our community college system is doing,” Price added.

One of the most interesting discussions at the summit focused on “Strategies for Success in the Emerging Personalized Medicine Era.”

Looking into the future of cancer therapeutics and diagnostics, John Leite, vice president of oncology at Illumina, pointed out that cancer is experiencing an historical transformation as it is redefined as a genetic disease. Illumina is an international company involved in the development, manufacturing and marketing of integrated systems for large-scale analysis of genetic variation and function.

Personalized medicine, based on genetic profiles and biomarkers, allows for the development and use of highly targeted therapies for individual patients and is resulting in a radical increase in quality survival rates, said Dr. Theo Ross, director of the UT Southwestern Medical School Cancer Genetics Department.

“Sequencing is phenomenal, but 98 percent of the people in Texas don’t know they have genetic risk factors,” Ross said.

Targeted therapy uses biomarkers to determine how a particular patient will respond to a particular drug and which patients are most likely to relapse, Ross said.

“The markers are out there, and there will be more and more of them. The next goal is to prevent patients from ever developing cancer … using the same (biomarkers),” he noted.

Already physician researchers have analyzed biomarkers and recommended targeted drugs for use in more than 100,000 cancer patients, added Scott Boyle, PhD, senior director of business development for Caris Life Sciences. Caris, an Irving-based company, announced the completion of tumor profiling to identify the molecular drivers of cancer in 100,000 clinical cases in August.

“We used to diagnose cancer, now we look for what’s driving the disease,” said Sunil Joshi, CEO of Gradalis. “But, for most cancers, we’re still not there, and we have been using chemotherapy for 50 odd years.”

Gradalis is a Dallas-based company developing and commercializing molecular-based personalized therapeutics that are tumor specific.

“Ultimately we want every cancer patient who walks through the door to get genetic testing,’” Joshi said.

The idea is “to allow the patient’s immune system to respond to the drug treating the tumor and change to the next best therapy as soon as the tumor quits responding,” Joshi said.

– Carolyn Poirot

Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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