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AT&T’s Foundry to Open Skunkworks at Houston’s Texas Medical Center

Xconomy Texas — 

The Texas Medical Center’s Innovation Institute has a new partner in building up its digital health ecosystem: AT&T.

The global telecommunications giant will in February open its latest “Foundry” at the TMC campus, a skunkworks designed to boost health IT innovation. The facility will be the sixth one AT&T (NYSE: T) has in the country; the company also has a research hub dedicated to Internet of Things innovation in Plano, just north of Dallas.

“We’re looking at creating real product and bringing it to market,” says Chris Penrose, senior vice president for Internet of Things at AT&T Mobility. “We’re putting engineering folks on site that will help (entrepreneurs) take concepts and ideas and turn them into prototypes.”

Joining with the TMC gives AT&T the opportunity to be part of an environment where “there is so much opportunity to drive innovation around healthcare,” he adds.

The idea behind the Houston Foundry is to connect with healthcare entrepreneurs and provide the sort of engineering expertise that can enable, say, medical devices to collect and relay data in real-time to help provide better care to patients. For example, at the Foundry in Plano, AT&T has a project with Permobil, a wheelchair manufacturer. The Internet-connected wheelchair has sensors that monitor patient comfort, maintenance requirements, and performance.

“If a chair has actually stopped in the same position for a long time or a customer has fallen over, we can pass that information to an immediate family member, and pass other information to the doctor,” Penrose says. “They can take actions against that data.”

For Bill McKeon, the TMC’s executive vice president and chief strategy and operating officer, the AT&T partnership further boosts the medical center’s efforts to commercialize its research.

“That whole connected sphere is already becoming fundamental in the way we provide care today,” he says. “Now, their experts can come together with our developers of devices and technologies and make those much more connected.”

In addition to the AT&T facility, the medical center’s year-old accelerator, TMCx, this month is welcoming its second class. The startup program will be split in two, with one cohort specializing in digital health and the second in medical devices.

To help shepherd the initiatives, TMC recently hired Erik Halvorsen, a Boston veteran of life sciences commercialization. Also this spring, pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) will open its latest JLabs outpost at the complex.

“This is not just for TMC companies, but we hope students from the DeBakey High School (for Health Professions) or other HISD campuses can participate,” McKeon says. “We hope to expose a larger audience to these technologies, these tools that connect people to their health.”