The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas Wednesday awarded about $82 million in grants, the largest of which went to Austin, TX-based Mirna Therapeutics.
The board approved spending $25 million in a three-year grant to support the biotech firm’s efforts to develop therapies based on microRNAs, very short RNA strands that work as genomic master switches capable of turning off multiple genes at the same time. The company had previously received a $10.3 million CPRIT grant.
CPRIT also gave AERase, also in Austin, $19.8 million to help it develop a treatment that uses engineered human arginase that would replace an amino acid essential to viable tumor cells resulting in the death of the malignant cells with minimal side effects to normal cells.
The remainder of the $37.3 million in funding went to 14 researchers in amounts ranging from $1.8 million to $6 million.
Among those representing CPRIT executive leadership at the meeting was a new face: Thomas Goodman, the agency’s new chief product development officer.
Goodman joined the staff last month after spending eight years as the vice president of business development at Arizona Technology Enterprises, the tech transfer arm of Arizona State University, and Arizona Biodesign Institute in Scottsdale, AZ. “I wasn’t recruited; I recruited myself,” he says. “This [CPRIT] immediately struck me as being a tremendous opportunity. The mission to serve cancer patients is a very compelling mission.”
Upon getting to Austin, Goodman says one of the first items on his to-do list was to meet with tech transfer officers at each of the state’s major research institutions. “It’s a broken circuit if we don’t take what’s being developed at the universities and translate those into products,” he says. “We have to make sure that those folks understand the opportunity that we have available.”
At the same time, he added that it’s key for the agency to support the ongoing efforts of biotech entrepreneurs in Texas and encourage their out-of-state counterparts to relocate here. Goodman says his own experience at young biotech firms helps him understand the challenges and needs of the type of companies CPRIT will be funding.
Prior to joining Arizona Technology Enterprises, he had worked at Valeo Medical in Burlington, MA, Research Corporation Technologies in Tucson, AZ, and Syva Company in Palo Alto. Goodman is now planning a roadshow, of sorts, attending cancer conferences and pitching both CPRIT’s programs and Texas as an ideal place for young biotech firms.
“I don’t see myself putting together deals, but talking about the opportunity to individuals who do want to put together deals,” he says.
The agency had been without a chief product development officer for more than a year, following the resignation of Goodman’s predecessor, Jerry Cobbs, in late 2013. CPRIT started in 2007 with a 10-year mandate to invest $3 billion of taxpayer money into cancer research. But five years later, officials faced legislative and criminal inquiries related to improperly allocated grants, putting the agency on a yearlong hiatus.
After a series of lawmaker-imposed reforms, the agency resumed operations last November. A month later, a Travis County, TX, grand jury indicted Cobbs in connection with an $11 million award improperly given to Peloton Therapeutics, a Dallas biotech firm. That case is pending.
Goodman calls the controversy “old news.”
“There’s not an entrepreneur out there that really cares about that,” he says. “They are focused on what are we going to do tomorrow. That’s where they live. They’re not historians; they’re futurists.”