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Austin’s Next Startup Surge Is In the Life Sciences

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Experts weigh in at UT’s Hook ‘Em House at SXSW

Andre Esteva figures every major startup hub needs four things to be successful. It takes venture capital, entrepreneurs who can see the big picture and talent willing to take chances and bet on themselves.

“And you need to be proximal to a top-tier research university,” the founder and CEO of ArteraAI said.

All the atmospheric conditions appear present in Austin, a city that could launch itself into the stratosphere for those interested in life sciences over the next decade. UT President Jay Hartzell is steadfast in his belief that it’ll be the Longhorns piloting things the whole way.

“Now what I see as the challenge, and we’re on a great trajectory here in Austin, if we get it right, we will have a self-sustaining ecosystem,” Esteva said. “The challenge is making sure that those companies stay and continue to flourish.”

Hearing that, Hartzell shot back, “Andre, I noticed you started saying, ‘we.’ So this is working.”

Hartzell moderated an hour-long panel Friday afternoon at the Hook ’Em House at Antone’s that proved to be one of UT’s most dynamic South by Southwest sessions.

It wasn’t about one specific breakthrough or new innovation. The talk was more conceptual. Hartzell and the panelists outlined a vision how the city and UT can radically reshape the region’s place among national leaders in life sciences.

Austin is still one of the most desirable cities to live in the United States. Venture capital and entrepreneurs are always looking for innovative ideas. Smart money is always looking for the Next Big Thing. Now, go after the talent.

“We’re targeting the brilliant 25-30-year-olds,” said Jim Breyer, founder of Breyer Capital and a major proponent of life sciences. “I received a call from a phenomenal couple at Cedars Sinai in LA who said ‘We’re in, we’re ready to come to Austin.’”

UT has already supersized its commitment to medical research. With the Dell Medical School, the upcoming UT Medical Center and MD Anderson Cancer Center all working in conjunction with world-class engineering, robotics, nursing, pharmacy and additional leadership on campus, it’s hard to imagine how UT can’t make life-changing breakthroughs.

“There’s something special here at the University of Texas, at this time in Austin, that’s got me really excited,” said Claudia Lucchinetti, dean of the Dell Medical School and senior vice president for medical affairs at UT. “And I think to deliver on that process is going to require focus, discipline and imagination and drive, and I’m confident that that’s going to happen here.”

Austin currently ranks eighth nationally with $1.5 billion invested in 253 startups among life sciences. If Austin is going to jump up into the top three with Silicon Valley, New York and Southern California, it’ll take high-level thinking and leadership.

Breyer said Hartzell’s collaborative leadership style — “the groups you pull together, the chances you take” — is one of the main ingredients. And in Breyer’s mind, other national academic institutions don’t approach life sciences with the same risk tolerance as the appetite is here in Austin.

“If we creatively think about that,” Breyer said, “there is no stopping Austin, Texas.”