Texas Biotech Leaders Doubt CPRIT Will Get Its Groove Back

1/24/14Follow @angelashah

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I believe is, to this point in time, there has been many more meritorious research projects that have come forward than meritorious product development applications,” says Roberts, who was the agency’s interim chief during the moratorium. “We are going to be actively finding ways to beat the bushes to encourage more [product development] applications.”

Roberts also says that, while not technically classified as product development, many research grants also have potential to advance ideas with commercial potential. “It’s the ‘D’ in ‘R&D’,” he says.

“We probably get at least 30-to-1 research to commercialization applications,” Roberts says. “If a company or someone in the private sector is disappointed in the number of product development projects that we’ve funded, my answer to them is to pull a group together and give us quality applications and run it through our processes, and I look forward to a successful relationship with them.”

CPRIT 2.0

A few weeks after reinstatement on December 9, the agency issued requests for proposals, three each in research, product development, and prevention. The deadline for applications is next week.

Dan Watkins, a managing director at the Mercury Fund in Houston who focuses on life sciences investments, says he thinks the glass is “half-full.”

“I’m encouraged that going through these problems may result in even more disciplined and objective analysis,” he says. “The state should be able to really pick up some outstanding technologies and create some outstanding companies.”

At the time of voters’ approval of the amendment creating CPRIT, life sciences entrepreneurs hailed the agency as a remedy for one of biotech’s biggest obstacles in commercialization: money, or the lack thereof, for what are typically risky ventures. With Big Pharma cutting back on R&D, and venture capitalists steering away from the earliest and riskiest stages of biotech innovation, backers hoped that CPRIT could plug that hole.

But when allegations surfaced that the agency’s oversight committee approved awards that had not been properly vetted, operations ground to a halt. And several startups with pending applications got caught in the breach.

Opportunity Delayed

Jon Northrup, CEO at Beta Cat Pharmaceuticals in Gaithersburg, MD, was in the final review stages for a $15 million CPRIT grant just days before Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced a moratorium on the agency’s activities in 2012. The company sought the money to help fund research into a drug that targets cancer stem cells and said it would move to Texas if it could get a grant.

When I spoke with Northrup last June … Next Page »

Angela Shah is the editor of Xconomy Texas. She can be reached at ashah@xconomy.com or (214) 793-5763. Follow @angelashah

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  • Frank Grassler

    Angela, did you confront Roberts with the Oncolix problem of inconsistent treatment of their second application?

    • http://www.xconomy.com/texas Angela Shah

      Hi Frank. I did ask him about concerns from many entrepreneurs about the review process. CPRIT would not get into specific company applications.