Three years ago this column likened the challenge of developing a local bioscience industry to the impossible task of herding cats: With diverse medical and health science businesses scrambling for position, each bent on charging down its own path, how could these companies be convinced to channel their energy into common goals?

Today, while the question remains valid, the answers have become a little clearer thanks to a combination of state financial support and a growing entrepreneurial spirit among life science innovators.

A symbol of the gradually converging interests in this sector is a new downtown building called the New Orleans BioInnovation Center. Located on Canal Street across from Tulane University Medical Center, the four-story structure recently was opened for tours to show off its high-tech “wet” labs and office spaces, and to tout its core mission: to move great medical and bioscience research from the laboratory to the marketplace.

“A lot of people with experience in life sciences and business incubation come to the city and want to build something here, but they don’t know where to begin. A place like this can help them get started,” says Aaron Miscenich, president of the BioInnovation Center.

Built at a cost of $47 million, the 66,000-square-foot center housed nearly a dozen companies within a few months of its opening. Tenants now include research firms that are working to bring their products or devices to clinical trials, along with several venture capital firms.

Eventually, the building could house 40 or 50 businesses employing up to 200 people, Miscenich says. At that point, life science entrepreneurs such as Sudhir Sinha and his four employees would have a lot more company around them.

Sinha, whose business focuses on refining DNA testing and identification methods widely used in crime labs, is an experienced DNA researcher. He financed the startup of his latest company, InnoGenomics, with $300,000 raised in part from a previous business he founded and sold. A $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation provided an additional boost, and the company could snag more grants on the way to producing DNA testing prototypes for use by law enforcement agencies.

Other businesses that have become tenants of the BioInnovation Center could benefit from the proximity of Sinha’s company, along with the opportunity to rub elbows with the venture capital firms. “Having a VC down the hall is a big deal,” Miscenich says.

Locally based South Coast Angel Fund, for instance, which injected more than $1 million into a couple of local startups during its first year of operation, became one of the center’s first tenants. The New Orleans Startup Fund is also housed there, as is a local office of Argent Technology Ventures.

Miscenich acknowledges that the center was a long time coming. Conceived in 2002, the project had progressed just to the point of demolishing an old building on the center’s site when Hurricane Katrina hit the city. In the aftermath of the storm, delay after delay plagued the center, as did rising construction costs. But Miscenich says the delays didn’t totally preclude progress.

 “We had a temporary business incubator for three years where we managed graduate students within local universities to help start up new companies,” he says.

Miscenich and other center staff laid plans for populating the new center by scouting promising prospects in area schools.

“We went into the universities and started interviewing researchers to gain an understanding of the research being done and to see if it might be something that could be commercialized,” he says.

The BioInnovation Center provided such prospects with assistance ranging from help in writing business and marketing plans to connecting researchers with venture capitalists who could step in with help at a later stage.

Miscenich says the private, not-for-profit center arose with major assistance from the state of Louisiana, which committed money to building and operating biotechnology development centers in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport.

In addition, dozens of local leaders in the life sciences sector persisted in efforts to put other big pieces of the downtown “biodistrict” in place. The Cancer Research Consortium now being built is one result. The development, after years-long delays, of large new hospitals by the Veterans Administration and Louisiana State University is certain to add to the momentum behind local biotech innovation.

“This is the real deal,” health care attorney Donna Fraiche said of the BioInnovation Center during a recent presentation to a local business audience.
One of dozens of local leaders who lobbied for the development of the center and other biotech projects, Fraiche said the growing numbers of experienced scientists and biotech entrepreneurs who are turning up in New Orleans is proof that a critical mass of expertise is taking shape.

“The people in and surrounding the BioInnovation Center are people who know what they’re doing and have done it before,” Fraiche said.

Miscenich envisions a point down the road when research that migrated from local universities into the BioInnovation Center leads to late-stage clinical trials undertaken at the new LSU Health Sciences Center.

“It all boils down to money and relationships,” he says. “We have to create a climate that makes it worthwhile for these research companies to stay in New Orleans rather than going off to Boston or the Research Triangle” in order to move their technology into the marketplace.

“There’s just brilliant technology coming out of the universities waiting to be commercialized,” he says. “We have to give them a business rationale to remain in the city.”

Biotech Pioneers
The New Orleans BioInnovation Center is fast becoming home to a core group of businesses that exist solely to do groundbreaking life sciences technology or assist such companies in bringing their technology to market. The following are some of the tenants who now call the center home.

Argent Technology Ventures. A venture capital company formed to invest in fledgling health care-related businesses in Louisiana, Texas and along the Gulf Coast.

InnoGenomics. A genetics technology company on the cusp of commercializing a highly reliable method of DNA testing.

New Orleans Medical Complex. A collaboration of universities aimed at furthering development of the medical sciences through local work force development.

Southern Research Institute. A nonprofit organization that conducts preclinical drug research and development and advanced engineering research in materials, systems development, environment and energy.

TMS Bioscience. A clinical laboratory that provides spectrometry testing, including monitoring of transplant patient immunosuppression.

VoiceHIT. An emerging company that is using technology to revive and restore the patient-provider relationship through digital documentation and innovative data collection and dissemination.