State tech fund seeding a new crop of Austin startups

Bernard "Bud" Weinstein, an economist and associate director for SMU's Maguire Energy Institute, talks about the important role of Texas' tech fund.

By Lori Hawkins

Tucked away in an anonymous Southeast Austin business park, scientists at HeatGenie Inc. are developing technology that heats soup with the push of a button to activate a warming element in the can — no stove or microwave needed.

In a laboratory in Cedar Park, Mystic Pharmaceuticals researchers are designing devices to deliver drugs through mists sprayed in the nose or eyes, a more precise method than drops for diseases such as glaucoma.

And at the Hornsby Bend wastewater treatment facility in East Austin, Sunrise Ridge Algae Inc. is testing ways to use algae to create renewable fuel.

Their work is far-ranging, but the three have one thing in common: Money paying their salaries and funding their research has come from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, which invests state money in promising startups in cutting-edge fields such as biotechnology, robotics and clean energy.

The Legislature started the fund in 2005 to support advanced research at Texas universities and speed the commercialization of that research to create companies and high-quality jobs.

So far, Central Texas has scored big, with 20 companies taking in about $28 million of the $110 million the state has invested in 88 companies. Another nine area companies are in the pipeline to receive more than $20 million in funding, according to officials.

As the region continues to be rocked by recession — with venture capital investment slowing and unemployment rising — the state money is supporting Austin's unique population of creators and inventors while seeding a crop of companies that might produce some home runs in the future.

"At a time when it's hard to get bank loans or raise money on Wall Street and the venture capitalists are in hiding, this money is keeping the dream alive," said Bud Weinstein, an economist with the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. "ETF represents a fairly modest investment by the State of Texas into companies that may one day yield significant payoffs in terms of new jobs and revenue for state and local governments as successful companies become taxpayers."

Austin's list of fund winners offers a glimpse into the intriguing mix of promising ideas.

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