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Wednesday, December 06, 2023 — Houston, TX

Liftoff for the Biotech Launch Pad


William Liu / Thresher

By James Cancelarich     9/19/23 11:00pm

The Rice Biotech Launch Pad accelerator was announced on the 61st anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s moonshot speech. This initiative aims to develop new research and emerging technologies into practical clinical applications by bridging the gap between researchers, medical companies and healthcare professionals, Omid Veiseh said. 

Omid Veiseh, an associate professor in the department of bioengineering and a biotechnologies entrepreneur, serves as the faculty director of the Launch Pad. Veiseh said the Launch Pad will support new discoveries through navigating regulatory procedures, manufacturing and business development.

“Our vision for this launch pad is to create the necessary infrastructure … to [think] about what the actual product would look like,” Veiseh said. “Our hope is now that we have the Launch Pad, we can bring in additional people from the university working on ideas that they wish to translate, having the structure and support.”

The current projects at the Launch Pad expand upon existing research at Rice and the Texas Medical Center such as cell therapy modality, which uses living cells to treat disease. Veiseh said he hopes the Launch Pad’s projects will result in real differences for patients in the near future.

“We work closely with the clinicians, who help identify where the unmet needs are,” Veiseh said. “It’s really important to get that clinician’s perspective because they are the ones that ultimately will be using the new technologies.” 

The Launch Pad is currently working on three projects. The project’s goals are to produce usable medical technologies using the Launch Pad’s resources.

Normalizing Timing of Rhythms Across Internal Networks of Circadian Clocks is a collaboration funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that aims to create an implant to mitigate disrupted sleep cycles through biological cues initiated by bioengineered cells. Regenerative Electronic Platform through Advanced Intelligent Regulation, also funded by DARPA, aims to create a smart-device to expedite the body’s natural healing process by releasing healing mechanisms directly into the wound. Third, the Cell Factories for Durable Protein Expression project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, works to create an implanted device with antibodies to protect against infectious diseases. This project is focused on HIV protection for people without reliable access to healthcare services.

Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Jacob Robinson serves on the leadership council for the Launch Pad. He said he is excited for the new entrepreneurial opportunities that the Launch Pad will support.

“What we’re doing is very capital-intensive and requires a lot of expertise,” Robinson said. “Action energy is really high and the skill sets are specific and niche.” 

Robinson said a strength of the Launch Pad will be the ability to help new companies navigate the complexities of the biotechnology industry, including the challenge of finding regulatory partners, venture capitalists or lab space. Robinson said there is great opportunity in Houston, considering the combination of research at Rice, the expertise and activity at the Texas Medical Center and the overall economic environment. 

Vice President for Innovation and Chief Innovation Officer Paul Cherukuri is working on moonshot programs, encompassing innovation in medical technology, environmental studies and data sciences. The Biotech Launch Pad is part of this initiative.

“[We’re aiming] to really solve problems at scale,” Cherukuri  said. “Most universities bury innovation … [President Reggie DesRoches] wanted it at the presidential level so we can drive change in a big way, as Rice is one of the top universities in the entire country. I think Reggie [DesRoches] creating the [innovation] office and engaging students in this way is one of the most noble things we have ever done as a university.”

Cherukuri said he is looking to increase student involvement in research, innovation and development.

“Undergraduates at Rice are thrilling,” Cherukuri said. “We need every single ounce of undergraduate brilliance to help us really drive this forward and change the world.”

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