Mark S.F. Clarke, Ph.D.
Mark S.F. Clarke, Ph.D., interim associate provost for faculty development and faculty affairs at the University of Houston, sat down with Texas Medical Center Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Operating Officer William F. McKeon to share the vision behind the university’s innovation center and how collaboration within the Texas Medical Center enriches the experiences of local innovators.
Q| Can you tell us about your formative years? What got you interested in science and innovation?
A | I am from a small village called Florencecourt, located about six miles away from the N. Ireland/Republic of Ireland border. My mother, a nurse, was from Ireland and my father was a City and Guilds master craftsman. They met in northern England when he was serving in the British Army and she was in training as a nurse. When she returned to N. Ireland in the early 1960s, he followed her home and set up a building contractor business. The first clue that I wanted to be a scientist was showing a lot of interest in my mother’s anatomy and physiology books, and a reputation for taking a screwdriver to anything mechanical just to see how it worked. Unfortunately for my parents, as a four-year-old, putting various clocks, radios and small appliances back together was more of a challenge than taking them apart.
Q | Can you tell us about your career path and how you ended up in Houston?
A | I was lucky enough to attend a school in Ireland that has been in existence for over 400 years. Portora Royal School in Enniskillen was founded in 1608 by royal charter and is one of only five royal schools in Ireland. It has a long academic tradition and provides an education that prepares its students primarily for entry into university (as well as rugby, cricket and rowing). One of the opportunities I had was career counseling in the medical professions, so when I met the local hospital pathologist, I was intrigued. He said that I could hang out in his lab at the hospital, and since I was about 14 or 15 at the time, it was a perfect way to get out of class. After visiting his lab, I became very interested in medical laboratory sciences. In fact, his staff encouraged me to consider becoming a medical laboratory scientist (MLS) and suggested that I attend a new MLS degree program at the New University of Ulster. I applied and was accepted to the program. However, I decided that I needed to see more of the world and changed my mind about staying in Ireland. Instead, I was accepted as an undergraduate into a pharmacology program at Manchester Metropolitan University in northern England, ironically less than 10 miles away from where my father was born.
To be competitive for graduate school in the United Kingdom in the 1980s required that you had some previous undergraduate research. During the final year of my undergraduate degree, I was lucky enough to work with a tumor biologist at Manchester University Medical School, screening frozen tissue sections for novel tumor antigens using what was, at the time, a very new technology, namely monoclonal antibodies. This was my first taste of real research, helping with antigen injections, screening hybridoma cultures and learning immuno-histochemistry. This led to an interview in the Clinical Research Labs at the Christie Hospital and Holt Radium Institute and Patterson Institute for Cancer Research in Manchester.
My Ph.D. supervisors were Drs. Shant Kumar and David West, both interested in tumor angiogenesis and drug targeting of tumor endothelial growth as a treatment for solid tumors. My dissertation research focused on using 2D electrophoresis to identify tumor-related endothelial cell surface antigens for subsequent production of monoclonal antibody targeting agents. Both Shant Kumar and Dave West collaborated with Dr. Judah Folkman in Boston in discovering tumor angiogenic factor. Hence, it was not surprising that I found myself turning down a staff position with ICI Pharmaceuticals in their drug targeting section to take a post-doc in Boston at Harvard Medical School in the department of cell biology and anatomy. I spent the next several years working with Dr. Paul McNeil on how fibroblast growth factor, a growth factor that stimulated blood vessel growth, was released in response to mechanical load from skeletal and cardiac muscle cells. My interest in muscle hypertrophy spilled over into muscle atrophy and I was recruited to NASA-Johnson Space Center as a National Research Council (NRC) Fellow. I spent the next eight years in the Muscle Research Lab at NASA-JSC, first as an NRC Fellow and then working for the Division of Space Life Sciences as a senior staff scientist through the Universities Space Research Association. At NASA, I worked primarily on mechanical transduction, both in skeletal and cardiac muscle as well as bone.
While at NASA, I worked with a lot of colleagues in the Texas Medical Center, Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University and the University of Houston. One of my colleagues at NASA, Dr. Chuck Layne, had left to become a faculty member at the University of Houston. He and I had worked on various projects together, including the use of dynamic foot pressure as a muscle atrophy counter- measure during bed rest, unloading and space flight. We had built a custom boot that we used in a rat hind-limb model of muscle atrophy that showed promise, and started applying the same technology in spinal cord injured patients. Around that time, the department at the University of Houston that Chuck worked in—health and human performance—had just started a new Ph.D. program in kinesiology and was expanding its faculty ranks. I joined UH in 2002 as an associate professor and spent the next eight years building the Laboratory of Integrated Physiology, a multidisciplinary research facility, as its founding director. During that time, I also developed a novel ‘coupled’ model for studying bone growth using osteoblast and osteoclasts combined together in rotational culture to form large (6mm diameter) constructs called osteospheres. Osteospheres look like and behave like trabecular bone and are osteogenic in vivo. This led to the formation of a UH spin-off company called OsteoSphere, Inc., focused on generating a range of orthobiologics for reconstructive bone applications. In 2012, the new VP for Research at UH, Dr. Roth Bose, asked me to join him as associate VP for technology transfer in the division of research. Although it took me out of the classroom and the lab, it was a unique opportunity for me to combine my research and academic background with my interest in new technology and entrepreneurship.
Q | What was the founding vision for the Innovation Center?
A | The University of Houston has one of the largest IP portfolios in the state of Texas. It also has one of the largest IP revenue streams of any public university in the U.S., ranking first in the nation for public universities without a medical school. When I started working for Roth Bose, he already had a plan to expand the technology innovation enterprise at UH. He wanted to invest our IP revenue stream in an aggressive program designed to accelerate UH created technologies to the marketplace while creating a sustainable innovation ecosystem that bolstered UH’s overall research enterprise by building strong relationships with our outside industrial and business partners. Part of that strategy was the expansion of our innovation resources at UH’s Energy Research Park, located adjacent to the main campus.
We began with a building housing the usual bullpen office space and shared administrative and meeting spaces common in the startup world. This was quickly followed by renovation of the second floor of that building into a ‘state-of-the-art’ collaborative space as a home for nascent startups emerging from our on-campus innovation programs. These programs combine UH faculty inventors, our burgeoning entrepreneurial student work-force and external business mentors to explore pathways to market for a range of UH inventions and technologies.
The Innovation Center at UH was built as a home for the ever-increasing number of technology startups founded by UH faculty and students. It has provided a geographical location to create ‘entrepreneurial density’ on campus, and a place where our external partners can interact with our faculty and students in building the next generation of high-tech companies that will be located in Houston and the region. The InnovationCenterwillbejoinedearly next year by an adjacent building housing a 30,000 sq. ft. laboratory facility where these startup companies and our industry partners can work together to further develop our technologies. This has already started to bear fruit, with UH startup companies having received at least a dozen technology development grants from sources such as the NSF I-Corps program as well as DOE and NIH SBIR grant programs in the last year or so.
Q | Who do you typically find here utilizing this space?
A | Most of the space is utilized by UH faculty and student spin-off companies founded on UH-created technologies. However, as part of wanting to create a sustainable innovation ecosystem anchored at UH, we make the Innovation Center space available to other startup companies from the Houston area, startups that are not necessarily based on UH IP but have a relationship with UH—either through a faculty researcher or founders that are UH alumni. We have several entrepreneurs-in-residence, most notably Ken Jones, who also is the director of the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship (WCE) at UH’s Business School, as well as Jim Kane, who has been involved with the WCE program for many years.
Their presence in the Innovation Center provides wonderful synergy and continuity for the UH startup companies that move in, especially those founded by WCE students who have now graduated and are taking UH technologies to the marketplace.
Q | Can you tell us about Red Labs?
A | Red Labs was an effort that I was completely unaware of when I first took the job in Technology Transfer. It was located in the UH Business School, catered nearly exclusively to business-oriented students, and was primarily focused on information technology, apps and the like—things that lent themselves to rapid prototyping, rapid integration and that could also be explored quickly within an academic setting and calendar. However, Red Labs was an excellent opportunity to take the expertise resident in our business faculty and leverage it beyond students in our academic business programs. Red Labs does a wonderful job of providing an immersive, entrepreneurial experience for students outside of the business school who may never have thought of technology transfer as a career option or dreamed of creating a new business.
UH’s recent designation and funding as an NSF I-Corps Center has provided additional opportunities for both the nine-week Red Labs accelerator program and the academic yearlong WCE program to extend its reach into our STEM colleges. As part of the UH I-Corps Center program, we recruit STEM-qualified students to be part of an academic experience that involves both Red Labs and WCE in delivering innovation and entrepreneurial curriculum based on the ‘lean startup model’ of technology transition. These STEM students work with very nascent technologies, faculty innovators, Red Labs and WCE faculty, along with external mentors to explore the market potential of new technologies and processes. Our goal is to create the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs who not only understand the basic science behind these technologies but also have the fundamental knowledge and exposure to business concepts to start thinking about an entrepreneurial career. These students receive funding from the I-Corps Center to explore these opportunities while the UH innovation ecosystem and the wider community reaps the benefits of creating the next generation of ‘entrepreneurial leads’ right here in Houston.
Q | How does this program interface with TMCx and the medical center?
A | Our innovation ecosystem, while being firmly anchored at UH, relies heavily on being able to draw on the wealth of expertise and experience resident at TMCx and across the Texas Medical Center. While UH has an IP portfolio that covers the whole waterfront in energy, advanced materials, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, software, etc., it still needs partners to appropriately test and then transition those technologies to the market place. UH Red Labs has partnered with Rice University’s OwlSpark to create a unique ‘first of its kind’ program combining two university technology accelerators. This program delivers some of its curriculum at TMCx, exposing both UH and Rice students to a health care-centric innovation approach unique in the region during the now annual Bayou Showcase event. In the case of health care technologies created at UH, TMC provides a wealth of opportunities for our faculty and students to work with colleagues and mentors that are experts in the medical and health care fields. Understanding the regulatory landscape is one of those areas where the expertise housed in the TMCx will be essential for health care-based UH startups to achieve that market transition.
Q | Can you speak a bit to the collaboration across the Texas Medical Center around innovation?
A | There are a number of exciting collaborations going on in the TMC based on technologies developed at UH. These include clinical testing of various mind-machine interfaces that allow spinal cord injured patients to walk again using exoskeletons or amputees to control prosthetic limbs controlled only by their brain waves. UH scientists and their TMC colleagues have also developed advanced tracking technologies to maximize the most efficient use of surgical suites and ‘smart’ trochars designed to provide better patient outcomes during laparoscopic surgery. There is a new cancer drug, Phosplatin, presently in phase I clinical trials in the TMC. There are at least two other new cancer immunotherapy treatments developed at UH that are currently in animal or human testing in the TMC. All of these illustrate the value of being able to have faculty develop fundamental breakthroughs in UH laboratories while having the colleagues, clinical expertise and facilities at the TMC to test and refine those technologies to bring them to market as quickly as possible.
Q | Can you share the vision for the next five years, relative to innovation?
A | Innovation and entrepreneurship are central to the University of Houston’s long-term strategic plan. Creating an innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem that is anchored at UH but firmly embedded in the larger Houston and regional ecosystem provides unique opportunities for our faculty and students, expands the research base of the university, while also helping UH to drive the economic prosperity of the city and region which we serve. UH has set in motion a variety of internal programs designed to promote, foster and reward innovation on campus, while taking steps to educate and develop its own entrepreneurial workforce, drawn from UH faculty and students. These programs not only help accelerate the transition of technologies to the market by UH startups and spin-offs, but in the future will also help populate and drive the regional innovation ecosystem through the next generation of ‘entrepreneurial leads’ created by these programs. Additional resources include access to capital for these companies through strategic partnerships with several early-stage investor groups, such as Fannin Innovation, Houston Health Ventures and our newest partner, the Texas Collegiate Regional Center, who will not only invest in UH technologies but will also build a new technology innovation facility at UH-ERP for additional startup companies. The UH Innovation Center and associated infrastructure at UH-ERP is fast becoming an epicenter for technology innovation and entrepreneurship within a much larger ‘networked’ ecosystem that includes TMCx and our greater Houston partners. The mission of a Research One University is not only to create new knowledge and educate the next generation of scholars, but also to combine its cutting edge research programs and human capital to create novel technologies and processes that are of benefit to all mankind. By providing a geographical location at UH ERP that fosters ‘entrepreneurial density’ and promotes the type of collaborative ‘collisions’ needed to drive true innovation, the University of Houston will continue not only to serve the people, city and region as an engine of economic prosperity, but also truly make UH ‘the house that innovation built.’