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How an old cookie factory is driving life science startup growth in Houston

BY CHRISTINE HALL

When most people think of the market here in Houston, they think of energy. But today, there is much more powering our local and regional economy than oil and gas.

Houston is seeing a boom in startup growth in an emerging area: digital health. Startup companies from traditional tech markets like San Francisco are flocking to Houston to participate in TMCx, the Texas Medical Center’s accelerator program.

The program is designed to meet the needs of startups at every stage—from ideation to commercialization—and to lower the barriers of access to hospital stakeholders and key opinion leaders across the world’s largest medical center. This summer TMCx will celebrate its fourth Demo Day, with 21 digital health startups, half of which have come from outside of Texas. This is the largest class since the inception of TMC’s Innovation Institute — and the startup companies in the current class have brought in $44M in venture capital funding on top of the $76M raised in previous cohorts.

The latest cohort, focused on digital health, is particularly pertinent to today’s health care landscape. About 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience a mental illness a year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Since the number of people getting so much of their information via smartphones continues to increase, the trend of digital health—incorporating data with healthcare—is also expected to grow. Media reports estimate that the digital health market will be worth close to $233 billion by 2020.

These companies are moving the needle on behavioral and neurological health to enable doctors to not only better diagnose a potential problem but offer treatment in ways that are more personalized to the patient. TMCx’s new tools and technologies are poised to impact health care across Texas, the U.S., and the world.

Below we spotlight several companies participating in the current TMCx cohort in Houston, but all of which hail from other cities and countries.

• San Francisco-based Lantern is combining proven clinical programs delivered via mobile phone with trained, professional coaches. Its mobile app uses cognitive behavioral therapy—considered the gold standard for conditions including anxiety, depression and eating disorders—and adds a human touch to help people change their behavioral health. The concept has attracted investors: last year, Lantern raise $17 million in a round of funding led by UPMC’s venture capital arm to commercialize personalized programs that combine daily exercises and professional coaching to strengthen emotional well-being.

• Psious, based in Barcelona, Spain, aims to help people get over their fears using a virtual reality experience. For example, if a patient has a fear of heights, the behavioral health technology company’s platform provides mental health professionals with animated and live environments they can design to help the patient overcome the fear. So far, Psious has provided virtual reality (VR) immersion treatment to 400 therapists in clinical practice to help them in their efforts to reduce their patients’ anxiety, stress, fears, addictions, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Psious also uses VR to teach the practice of mindfulness and relaxation techniques. To bolster its international visibility, this year, the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute established a health technology startup exchange program that brought in three Australian companies to the current cohort, including CNS Dose, which developed a genomic solution to fast track funding the most suitable antidepressant. Facilitated by Austrade, the TMC Biobridge provides the foundation for a long-term bilateral innovation and technology transfer between the U.S. and Australia.

• CNS Dose, based in Melbourne, Australia, has the first positive randomized controlled trial that shows gene-guided treatment can improve the odds of recovery. The company is now deployed in one TMC hospital and is completing formal business agreements with two others. While one in five adults experience a mental illness each year, that same statistic also is true for children. One of the conditions at the forefront is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivityimpulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.

• Based in Ottawa, Canada, DOT is creating precise and effective wearable consumer devices that diagnose and treat neurobehavioral disorders, including a game aimed at managing children’s ADHD. DOT’s headset is paired with an interactive application to provide a quantitative diagnosis and treatment through gamification of neurofeedback therapy.

• NeuroLex Laboratories, based in Atlanta, collects and analyzes speech samples that can identify health abnormalities early including depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease and then equip patients and physicians with insight to prevent symptoms from worsening. The company processes the patient’s audio samples to find things like pauses in the words and verb frequencies and then assesses which features are the most relevant to certain disorders.

These are just a few examples of how, with the backdrop of the largest medical center in the world, TMC Innovation is helping to shape the future of health care by bringing in startups that offer promising solutions to some of the biggest behavioral and neurological health problems.