Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The Texas Research and Technology Foundation (TRTF) is preparing to establish a new innovation center and investment fund to support the development of more early-stage life science and technology companies in San Antonio.
TRTF CEO John Randolph “Randy” Harig confirmed the purchase of the five-building Merchants Ice and Storage complex located on San Antonio’s near East Side last Wednesday. The planned innovation center at 1305 E. Houston St. will focus on helping companies working in the biosciences, cybersecurity, and emerging technologies.
“With more than 110,000 sq. ft. in five structures on almost five acres, it gives us the perfect place to establish a new innovation hub for small and start-up companies in San Antonio while also modernizing those facilities and contributing to the economic development on the Eastside,” Harig said.
TRTF is developing the master plan for the location. The first step will be to develop one of the buildings on Cherry Street into a home for the foundation’s new innovation-focused entity – VelocityTX. Jorge Varela, executive vice president of innovation at TRTF, will oversee the new innovation entity, which aims to help companies facilitate their development and early phases.
TRTF’s long-term vision is to redevelop the Merchant Ice property into a campus complete with partnering ventures and other potential tenants leasing from TRTF. The commercial activity and leasing income would provide revenue streams to sustain TRTF’s innovation accelerator, Varela said.
The initial focus for VelocityTX will be on companies “looking to innovate in bioscience, cybersecurity, and in the machine-to-machine internet of things space,” Varela said.
Plans include an business accelerator, an incubator, and an investment group to help fund potential companies. TRTF also hopes the facility can provide community programs to educate entrepreneurs on what it takes to be successful and how to validate ideas. There also are plans for investor training programs, mentor coaching programs, and for building a mentor network for early-stage companies.
“We’re putting programs that we know work in other parts of the country and are modifying them for use here,” Varela said.
The promise of such resources come at a key time for San Antonio’s bioscience sector.
“Lots of patents come from UTSA and UT Health, but they have no fertile ground to land upon once they leave the university,” said Mauli Agrawal, interim provost of the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). “We have our own incubator, but it can only help students so much because of space limitations.”
“As students get excited and develop ideas about commercialization they need entrepreneurial resources to learn those skills,” said Andrea Giuffrida, vice president for research at UT Health San Antonio said. “We see VelocityTX as a resource for those scientists to learn how to turn their intellectual property into successful companies.”
The TRTF board voted Aug. 31 to change its organizational structure and leadership to reflect changing roles within the nonprofit foundation that supports economic development in the biosciences and technology. The board asked Harig to take over as TRTF president and CEO, and board Vice Chair Steve Dufilho stepped into Harig’s former position as TRTF board chairman. York Duncan had been president since 1998 and has been with TRTF as developer of the Texas Research Park in northwest San Antonio since 1990.
Duncan will instead serve as executive vice president of real estate to focus his efforts on development and new construction, overseeing real estate activities both at the research park and the Merchants site. Using proceeds from the December sale of a 160-acre parcel of Texas Research Park land to Microsoft for a data center, the TRTF board has set up an endowment fund that will provide enough capital for three years of operating expenses.
“This is a big shift in our business model,” Varela said. “We’re selling off land at the research park to fund these efforts.”
A challenge for many growing bioscience companies is their need for specialized spaces such as labs that can be out of reach for cash-strapped entrepreneurs. With the Merchant Ice property purchase, VelocityTX, and revenue-generating ideas for development to fuel bioscience entrepreneurial activity, TRTF hopes to better nurture and support the city’s bioscience sector.
“I think what TRTF is doing very exciting because this is being done on a large scale and in an organized fashion,” Agrawal said. “It’s not just company development, it’s economic development for benefit of the entire city.”