In a sign of continued growth for the nascent biotech sector in San Antonio, startups from across the state competed here in the debut of a pitch competition for bioscience startups.

NovoThelium, a San Antonio-based company developing artificial nipple regeneration for women after a mastectomy, won the $10,000 grand prize at the first in-person BioFest Invest event, which organizers plan on staging annually.

Co-founders Bianca Cerqueira and Lauren Cornell say their technology updates a technique that has not seen major revisions since 1940, and which they say can help women feel “complete” after recovering from breast cancer. Their method is supposed to be more permanent and a closer match to actual regeneration.

The roughly seven-year-old company found support from many San Antonio organizations, such as Launch SA, Velocity TX, UT Health San Antonio and many others.

“There’s a lot of resources here, and if you’re open-minded you can really learn a lot in a short time,” said Cornell, the company’s CEO.

She said the $10,000 will likely go toward animal studies and packaging for the technology.  

Judges for the pitch competition included local figures involved in the bioscience sector, including Osman Özturgut, a business professor and dean of the University of the Incarnate Word’s School of Professional Studies. Also judging was Brian Kieser, a partner at San Antonio-based investment firm Fountainhead, as well as a founder at local biologics manufacturer Nvision Biomedical Technologies. Another judge was Walter Downing, the chief operating officer of Southwest Research Institute, which has taken an active role in developing San Antonio’s biosciences field.

The runner-up to NovoThelium was San Antonio-based Vascular Perfusion Solutions, which develops medical devices to preserve and resuscitate organs.

Heather Hanson, president of BioMedSA, said the aim of the all-day event it organized was to expose entrepreneurs to investors, and to connect them with resources and organizations that can help them navigate regulations, government contracts and other specialties involved in launching a new bioscience company. Expert panels spoke on topics in finance, health care and technology.

In attendance were representatives from San Antonio’s largest research institutions, including Texas Biomed, the Southwest Research Institute, UT Health San Antonio and UTSA.

BioMedSA was founded in 2005 by former Mayor Henry Cisneros and the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce to promote growth and connections within the city’s bioscience sector. Under the tenure of Hanson, who became its president in 2020, the organization has taken a proactive approach to this mission.

Membership doubled from roughly 2020 to 2021, to 180 members including subsidiaries, and is on track to triple by the end of this year, Hanson said.

The organization has in recent years formed a clinical trial task force to make it easier for sponsors to conduct clinical trials in the area. Last summer it moved out of leased space at the Southwest Research Institute and into a larger office at the San Antonio Technology Center.

Last year it also held the first BioFest Invest, though it was entirely online. Hanson said attendance for this year’s event more than doubled to 250 registrations.  

BioMedSA’s expansion comes with other signs of growth in San Antonio’s biotech sector.

VelocityTX, an incubator for biomedical startups, has embarked on a 20-year plan to reshape the city’s near East Side into an innovation hub for bioscience. One of the anchor tenants at its incubator, Scorpion Biological Service, a gene therapy company, won incentives last summer to expand its local operations.

Shortly after, a San Antonio-founded biotech startup, Intrinsic Imaging, was acquired for $80 million by a New Jersey firm.

Nearly one in five San Antonio residents work in the health care and bioscience industry, a category that includes hospitals and the medical field outside of startups, according to a 2020 report from the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce impact study. The industry generated $42 billion to the economy in 2019, the report said.

This article has been updated to correct the year in which Heather Hanson joined BioMedSA.

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Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham covered business and technology for the San Antonio Report.