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

Lonza opened a 300,000 square-foot facility in April. It is one of five firms putting Pearland on the biomedical map.

Lonza opened a 300,000 square-foot facility in April. It is one of five firms putting Pearland on the biomedical map.

Image description
Houston finds a natural partner in Pearland for growing life science industry
Image description
Houston finds a natural partner in Pearland for growing life science industry
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.”
By Matt Dulin
Matt joined Community Impact Newspaper in January 2018 and is the City Editor for Houston's Inner Loop editions.


In compliance with Gov. Greg Abbott's July 2 executive order, the University Interscholastic League is requiring the use of facial coverings when practical to do so for all summer activity participants, among other guidelines. (Graphic by Ronald Winters/Community Impact Newspaper)
UIL releases guidelines for conducting summer activities during COVID-19 pandemic

The University Interscholastic League released udpated guidelines for schools conducting summer activities such as sports training and marching band practices on July 8.

 (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
DATA: Roughly 5% of Brazoria, Galveston counties file for unemployment in June

The majority of the claims are in the oil and gas industry and the restaurant industry.

Craft Burger is one of 15 restaurants, catering companies and food trucks participating in this year's Black Restaurant Week. (Courtesy Craft Burger)
Houston's fifth annual Black Restaurant Week returns July 10-19

Participating patrons can play Black Restaurant Week Bingo and vote for their favorite participating eateries for a chance to win prizes such as restaurant gift cards, culinary treats and cash prizes.

The city of Houston confirmed only 204 new cases July 8, down from over 1,000 July 7, a discrepancy that officials attributed to a "computer system slowdown." (Community Impact Staff)
Harris County coronavirus count: 701 new cases confirmed as hospitalizations hold steady July 8

The city of Houston confirmed only 204 new cases July 8—down from over 1,000 July 7—a discrepancy that officials attributed to a "computer system slowdown."

Here are the coronavirus data updates to know today in Brazoria County. (Community Impact staff)
Brazoria County reports 125 coronavirus cases July 8, a new daily high

As of July 8, all age groups have more confirmed cases than recoveries.

Here are the coronavirus case counts from the Fourth of July weekend in Brazoria County and an analysis of rise of cases in the county. (Courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
UPDATED: A look at coronavirus case counts over the July 4 weekend in Brazoria County

The 20-29 age bracket is now the age bracket with the most infected cases in the county.

Home sales were up across most pricing categories in Houston in June, with a 15.7% jump as compared to the same period last year. (Community Impact staff)
Despite COVID-19, year-over-year Houston-area home sales up nearly 16% in June

Home sales were up across most pricing categories in Houston in June, with a 15.7% jump as compared to the same period last year.

Eligible businesses in Harris County may receive a grant of up to $25,000. (Courtesy Fotolia)
Applications open soon for Harris County's $30 million small business assistance program

Eligible small businesses may receive a grant of up to $25,000 to cover payroll costs, rent and other operating expenses.

(Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Judge Mark Henry starts Galveston County COVID-19 task force; League City Council Member Hank Dugie will chair

Galveston County Judge Mark Henry is putting together a countywide COVID-19 business task force. Henry has appointed League City City Council Member Hank Dugie to chair the COVID-19 Business Taskforce.

The 1,535 new cases is the second largest number of new cases to be reported in a single day in the county, behind only the 1,994 cases reported June 22. (Community Impact Staff)
Harris County coronavirus count: 1,535 new cases, six deaths confirmed July 7

See the latest data on COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Harris County.

Steve Bezner, senior pastor of Houston Northwest Church on Hwy. 249, is one of four pastors who are urging pastors across the region to work together in seeking unity. (Anna Lotz/Community Impact Newspaper)
4 Houston-area pastors take steps urging racial unity across region

"We wanted to unite as many pastors as possible around some basic common denominators that we felt like could make a real impact in our city and move some things forward in the area of racial injustice in our city," said Jason Shepperd, the lead pastor of Church Project in The Woodlands.