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Beyond Houston: Advocates Aim to Boost Texas Biotech in Dallas Area

Xconomy Texas — 

To illustrate the promise—and potential loss—of biotech in North Texas, JJ Spegele likes to share a conversation he had with a PhD candidate finishing his studies at a Dallas-area institution.

“He wants to stay here, but he doesn’t know where to look for work,” says Spegele, the president and CEO of the newly formed BioNorthTX, a life sciences advocacy group. “He’s from Michigan, and he told me that he called BioMichigan and they told him, ‘Absolutely; here’s a list of CEOs, and we can set up meetings for you.’”

“Here in Dallas,” Spegele added, “we don’t have that.”

I first heard Spegele tell this story last November at a dinner meeting of healthcare executives, investors, and heads of academic institutions gathered to learn about BioNorthTX, a biotech-focused advocacy group in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The formation of the group, which last month held a formal open house to introduce its inaugural board, came two years after a predecessor organization, BioDFW, was absorbed by the Health Industry Council in Irving, TX, after nine years of existence.

The Health Industry Council itself went through a disruption in early 2014 when CEO Russ Williamson and another top executive left the organization—characterized in local media at the time as “departures, not layoffs.”  (The council’s webpage is “under construction” and its Facebook page has not been updated since August 2013.)

At the least, Spegele says BioNorthTX can help provide a “mentoring and matchmaking” function for PhD holders looking to move into the region’s biotech companies.

“There is a need to make a personal connection, understanding who is in the region and what they are doing,” he says. “Entrepreneurs might be unaware of a local VC, the availability of funding. We want to connect talent to employers, and make sure they are aware there is local talent willing and able to meet their needs.”

Those sorts of connections are crucial, says Hubert Zajicek, executive director of Health Wildcatters, a Dallas accelerator founded two years ago. “When I was a cell biology researcher at UT Southwestern, I didn’t know a lot of business people,” he says. “Organizations like this help researchers know about what is possible and to see examples.”