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Texas Cancer Agency Launches Programs to Bridge Biotech Funding Gap

Xconomy Texas — 

[Updated, 4/30/18, 10:26 am. See below.Austin—The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) has created two new funding programs aimed at supporting the earliest-stage biotech companies.

The first program, called the “Seed Award,” is designed to help companies that would not qualify for existing CPRIT programs targeting technology commercialization. The second program is called the “Early Translational Research Award,” or ETRA, and will be given to academic research institutions to support scientists’ work that would otherwise not be considered for commercialization.

“A lot of money is spent on academic research and relatively few startup companies have emanated from that,” Mike Lang, CPRIT’s chief product development research officer, said in an interview. “The ETRA and seed program provide a financial bridge from academic support from NIH or NSF and help take those interesting and potentially attractive technologies and de-risk them and move them down the development pipelines.”

[Updated with timeline information for the ETRA grants.] The agency will grant up to $3 million for the seed program and $2 million for the ETRA program. Requests for applications (RFAs) for the seed program will be due in August, with awards being announced in February, the agency said. RFAs for the ETRA program will be due in January, with awards being announced in August. Like CPRIT’s other programs, Lang said qualifying parties would also need to obtain a 50 percent match in outside funding to receive the government award.

[Updated with additional grant information.] The announcement comes following a period where the cancer agency has not made any new product development grants. The last grants CPRIT made to foster commercialization were in August 2017 with an $8.99 million grant to ViraCyte and in November 2016 with a $16.9 million grant to Bellicum Pharmaceuticals in Houston and $15.2 million in funding to Molecular Templates in Austin, according to data available on the agency’s website.

CPRIT started in 2007 with a 10-year mandate to invest $3 billion of taxpayer money for cancer-related research, drug development, and prevention in Texas. (Ten percent of the funding is allocated to prevention efforts, with the remainder going toward academic research and product development as agency officials saw it.)

But in 2012, the agency came under legislative and criminal scrutiny over improperly allocated grants. During the various allegations and investigations, CPRIT was put on a yearlong hiatus. Texas lawmakers imposed a series of reforms and the agency resumed operations.

Lang said that funding for seed award and the ETRA award would come out of the existing money available for product development grants and academic research grants, respectively.

Ann Tanabe, CEO of life sciences advocacy group BioHouston, said she supports any effort to help boost product development for biotech companies, calling it “good for the ecosystem.” But she also expressed concern that funding was being carved out of the original product development program to support the new seed grants—especially since CPRIT has not made many of those grants in nearly 18 months.

Still, Lang said the new programs will play a key role in fostering commercialization because of their focus on the earliest stages of product development.

“We see numerous projects that have potential merit but are not privately fundable because there’s too many questions, too many unknowns that could be addressed with further development work,” he said. “But private sources are not going to make those investments because it’s too early and the risks are too high.”