Pearland is a natural partner for Houston biotech, industry leaders say

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At a huge, understated building off Kirby Drive in Pearland, over 100 workers are moving into new offices and labs, where they will help create medical treatments that might one day deliver miracle cures.

The international chemical and biotechnology corporation Lonza, which unveiled its 300,000-square-foot complex in April, is the latest firm to have chosen the area to grow its foothold in the emerging fields of life sciences and medical technology.

Now home to five life science firms, Pearland is being a seen as a partner with Houston as it aspires to join San Francisco and Boston as a “third coast” of life science innovation, according to industry leaders.

“We’re on our way. We definitely have some great momentum,” said Ann Tanabe, CEO for BioHouston, an organization that has been working to attract and support life science technology firms. “Innovation is in the air and the water. Everybody now is paying attention and putting resources into it, and this is going to propel us forward.”

Game-changing technology

Imagine a virus that does not make people sick but instead delivers a cure specifically formulated for a patient’s DNA. That is one way that Lonza employees hope to change how medical treatments are delivered in the future.

“We are entering a new era of medicine … where fragments of ourselves—our own cells, our own genes—will be the next medicines,” said Marc Funk, the chief operating officer of Lonza’s biotechnology and pharmaceutical division.

Company officials said its techniques could eventually eradicate cancers, reverse hearing and vision loss, and help children avert chronic genetic diseases.

“One of the really exciting things is we’re talking about cures, not drug treatments,” said Ricardo Jimenez, site director for the Pearland facility.

Lonza is bullish on its potential to grow; it has purchased another 19 acres at the Pearland site that could expand its operation even further.

At Base Pair Biotechnologies, another Pearland-based firm using small-scale science with big applications, workers are developing specialized molecules that can detect contamination or other targets in a sample, and then attach to those targets—called analytes—to detect them, remove them or to change their behavior.

The company has been researching how it can solve specific problems.

“A company comes to us—they want to measure something, purify something, or change the behavior of something, so we do the research,” Base Pair CEO Vicki Singer said.

For example, Base Pair found a way to use its technique to preserve vitamin C, which otherwise oxidizes and loses its potency, meaning the company could prevent material from going to waste.

The techniques company researchers are perfecting may be used to detect and remove toxins as well, Singer said.

“Imagine, for example, detecting  ana­lytes in your own home, or in agricultural fields, or in a doctor’s office, that otherwise require one to send samples to a lab for testing,” she said.

Adient Medical Inc., another firm in Pearland, is innovating devices that could soon be used in hospitals.

Its first product is a dissolvable blood filter to prevent pulmonary embolism, blood clots in the lung that kill about 100,000 people every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Current filters are crafted from metals and need to be removed surgically at significant cost; Adient’s device is a polymer turns into water and carbon dioxide after 35 days. The technology is set to go into clinical trials this year after completing several years of tests in large animals, CEO Mitch Eggers said.

The device has even more potential, Eggers said. The company estimates the market for dissolvable medical devices is $10 billion a year, with $600 million alone for the filter it already developed.

“Any application where you want a temporary solution for a temporary problem is game-on for us,” Eggers said.

Getting in position

With its close access to the Texas Medical Center, major research universities and a skilled workforce, Pearland has become a natural location for these firms, said Tanabe, the BioHouston CEO.

“As facilities are looking to build manufacturing footprint, and somebody tells them, ‘Hey, Texas is business-friendly,’ and they go, ‘OK, so where in Texas?’ … I think Pearland is at the top of that list,” Tanabe said.

The city of Pearland has taken advantage of its proximity to the TMC at a time when the Greater Houston area tries to attract more biotechnology companies, which are largely concentrated in San Francisco and Boston. South San Francisco, home to over 600 life science firms, bills itself as the “birthplace of biotechnology,” while Boston has over 1,000 firms.

Tanabe credits the Pearland Economic Development Center for its efforts, including its work on the Lower Kirby District and marketing to life science companies. Since 2004, when Kirby Drive was built, the city has invested almost $32 million to help make the district a viable employment center.

“Did we build out Lower Kirby because we wanted all these life science companies? No, but as opportunities came, it has been helpful in attracting them,” PEDC President Matt Buchanan said. The area is also home to the Pearland Surgical Center, a Mitsubishi manufacturing center and the Ivy District.

Pearland has also used economic incentives—over $3 million in the last 10 years from the PEDC—to encourage new construction and to retain these companies long term.

“What you’ll see happening—it’s hard when you’re the first or second—but if you go down Kirby Drive and you see good names, that just helps,” she said.

Lonza had a footprint in the TMC, but at a fifth the size of its new Pearland facility, it was not equipped for growth.

“They would have been hard-pressed to make the business case for the dirt in the Med Center,” Tanabe said. “But just going down six exits down [Hwy.] 288, they were able to find something that they could be med center adjacent … and built a world-class facility.”

For startups like Base Pair and Adient, Pearland was a natural base of operations because that is where their founders already lived. Adient, for example, started in Eggers’ garage in Shadow Creek Ranch.

The city has also proven to be an asset for attracting workers.

“The very low cost of living and housing prices have made it an attractive location for new hires, including those relocating from other parts of the country,” Singer said.

Challenges, opportunities

With the momentum these companies are picking up, jobs will almost certainly come.

With Lonza’s move, it has created dozens of new jobs and, as of May 17, the company had 50 positions posted, many requiring a Ph.D. in life sciences or significant experience in pharmaceuticals or biotechnology.

Filling those jobs, however, could become difficult, as experienced candidates just do not exist.

“We just don’t have a deep bench,” Tanabe said of the Greater Houston area. “Those things are changing now. We are starting to get more and more folks that are coming here that have had their hand at some point working with pharmaceuticals and these industries.”

Another limiting factor in the Greater Houston area is the lack of venture capital for life sciences. When CEOs like Singer and Eggers want to get access to more funding beyond local angel investors, they have to hit the road and pitch to investors on the West Coast or elsewhere—Houston does not have any dedicated firms with the level of financing they need to fully develop their products.

That makes investing in biotech, which is already difficult because of its regulatory hurdles and complex scientific material, a huge challenge for startups. For the Greater Houston area, this is a huge challenge but also an emerging opportunity, Tanabe said.

“The next piece of the puzzle is making sure we have that capital coming in. Investing in life science is tough because you have to understand the science of what these folks are doing,” she said. “As we attract funds from your Bostons, your San Franciscos and those that have built science-focused funds, and they start to see really interesting and exciting things happening in Houston, they’ll start to back these companies even more.”

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Matt Dulin
Matt joined Community Impact Newspaper in January 2018. A graduate of the University of Houston, Matt was most recently the director of community outreach and engagement at the Columbia Missourian and a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.
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