In a guest post, Texas Health Catalyst project advisor Yash Sabharwal writes about why he’s involved with the program, and why he thinks others should join him.
Around that same time, an energetic debate about State Sen. Kirk Watson’s ballot proposal to build a medical school in Austin was heating up. I weighed in with an opinion piece published in the Austin American-Statesman that reframed the discussion as an investment in economic development by the city and county — not an entitlement expenditure. I don’t know if it changed any minds, but as I write this today, education of Dell Medical School’s first class is underway.
Texas Health Catalyst
One of the promises of taxpayers’ investment in Dell Med was the benefit to numerous constituencies with the acceleration of clinical translation of technologies (specifically, for unmet clinical needs). This promise is already becoming a reality, particularly in the wake of the 2015 creation of the Texas Health Catalyst program.
Texas Health Catalyst is a forum for clinicians, researchers and industry professionals in Austin to identify real clinical problems, collaborate on potential solutions and foster the most promising ideas. My first involvement with the program was the Report-Out Event in late 2015, where teams selected for advisory services presented their ideas in hopes of receiving a monetary award to continue their development activities. It was a great event, but the general feel was one of “solutions looking for problems.”
Fast-forward a year. The 2016 Report-Out Event was completely different, with professional presentations addressing solutions to specific, unmet clinical needs. What precipitated the change? Texas Health Catalyst’s leaders took a chance and changed the course of the conversation. They decided to let clinicians rather than innovators sit in the driver’s seat. While this seems obvious, the world of technology startups is littered with companies that think their technology is promising enough to build a business without first identifying a market.
How It Works
For the 2016 program, leaders drafted two detailed requests-for-proposal (RFPs) related to women’s health and musculoskeletal conditions. The response was overwhelming: 87 proposals! These were vetted by panels of experts drawn from local industry veterans including life science executives, product development experts, intellectual property and regulatory attorneys, and early- and late-stage investors.
Texas Health Catalyst identified eight proposals for advancement to the next stage, where innovators work with a volunteer advisory panel to refine plans and lobby for seed funding. As a project advisor, I had the opportunity to work directly with a great team, which included the inventor of the technology, the clinical expert for the proposed application and another clinical associate. My job was to provide the development and commercialization expertise. Conversations were frank, and we took liberty to explore other avenues of commercialization that might be less challenging from regulatory and financing perspectives. This collaboration resulted in the identification of a commercial opportunity for the technology that could be much faster to market while still addressing a significant unmet clinical need. Which, by the way, is exactly the purpose of the Texas Health Catalyst program.
But how can we make the process work even better next time? Here are some thoughts:
- Open Texas Health Catalyst to private, local companies. If there is an unmet clinical need, it really shouldn’t matter where the best solutions come from.
- Create a bigger monetary prize to increase visibility and participation.
- Make Report-Out templates more prescriptive, with specific requests for information on market potential, development strategy, IP and regulatory strategy. Many of the presentations spent way too much time elaborating on the problem being solved rather than the solution and its development plan.
- Assemble an advisory board composed of local volunteers to continue working with the winning teams and preparing them for next steps. If any investor groups are interested in the winning proposals, make sure they are on the advisory board to provide guidance on what needs to be accomplished before they will be ready to invest.
- Define a clear path for licensing or options to license to any of the presented technologies so interested parties can move forward quickly on product development activities.
Of course, Texas Health Catalyst needs resources to advance its objectives and to expand its activities in ways that accelerate products into the clinic.
Making It Happen
To assist with this, local industry and investment groups need to get more involved, providing volunteers to guide projects and providing donations to fund program activities.
Even if you are not a life science company, it is in your interest to fund programs that advance the mission of the Dell Medical School and programs like Texas Health Catalyst. Finding solutions to advance the treatment of unmet needs and getting these solutions to market faster is in all our interests.
Yash Sabharwal is a serial entrepreneur living in Austin. He was Chief Operating Officer at Xeris Pharmaceuticals from 2011 to 2016 and Chief Financial Officer from 2011 to 2014. He is now providing operations, product development and finance consulting services to early-stage life science companies.
To discuss opportunities to support Texas Health Catalyst, contact Robin Richardson, Program Manager on the Health Product Innovation team.