The challenge to the local bioscience industry is a little like the task of herding cats: With each fiercely independent member of the group inclined to sprint down its own path, how do you convince everyone to move in the same direction?
The bioscience sector in New Orleans is a diverse collection of entities, ranging from universities and medical institutions to private corporations and startup entrepreneurs. Each has goals and game plans that consume its energies and their intense focus can make it difficult to see the benefit of altering a strategy to advance the whole.
But daunting as the challenge may be, the New Orleans Regional Bioscience Initiative hopes to put cooperation and collaboration at the top of this industry’s priorities. Caitlin Cain, who’s coordinating the initiative, says the stakes are high. “The medical district employs over 40,000 people and has a $3 billion impact on New Orleans,” she says.
Cain, whose primary job is directing economic development activities for the Regional Planning Commission, says that after Hurricane Katrina the commission went looking for a way to invest its “limited resources” in the recovery. Recognizing the significance of the medical industry to the city, the agency sought and won a federal grant to help advance the biosciences sector.
The grant aimed to develop a roadmap for implementing a 2005 state law that created the Greater New Orleans Bioscience Economic Development District. The district encompasses a complex network of entities involved in developing improved medical sciences and technologies but the legislation’s overarching mission was simple: to facilitate the conversion of local medical research into commercial applications – such as new drugs and medical devices – that could lead to new businesses and jobs in the local area.
“There was very little understanding of how the district would interface with existing organizations, including public and private entities,” Cain says.
For help, advocates of the initiative turned to Virginia-based economic development consultants Eva Klein & Associates Ltd. Following that firm’s initial assessment of the biosciences sector, Klein reported in 2006 that “not all participants necessarily share the same view of what the medical district is envisioned to be.”
University of New Orleans professor Ivan Miestchovich, who assisted in the initial Klein study, says the need for a unifying influence was clear. “We needed to try to bring some cohesion to the biosciences-medical district discussion,” he says. “There were just too many competing interests.”
Miestchovich says the efforts recently crossed a big hurdle with the first meeting of a new board of directors for the biosciences initiative. Thirteen individuals representing local universities, medical institutions and businesses came together in April to take steps toward giving the bioscience district a single voice. The board shortly will meet again to elect a chairman.
“That’s a huge, important step forward. Assuming they can come together and hammer out some bylaws and guidance, then the execution of the biosciences strategy and the likelihood of its success goes way up the chart,” Miestchovich says.
A big step, yes, but tougher decisions lie ahead. In a second Klein report issued last year, the firm laid a blueprint for regional biosciences growth built around two missions: the development of clear route leading from basic scientific research to commercial applications via clinical trials and new business development; and physical redevelopment of the downtown medical district into a “planned and controlled mix of urban uses.”
The report said an important step toward the latter goal would be creating a central location for entrepreneurial support and business services.
Biosciences advocate Aaron Miscenich says such a hub is finally within reach: A new $60 million “bioinnovation center” is under design and local contractor Gibbs Construction LLC will partner with a Nashville firm in building the center on Canal Street. “Construction should take 13 to 18 months but we’re planning early occupancy of the building by the end of 2009,” says Miscenich, who serves as executive director of New Orleans BioInnovation Center Inc.
Funded primarily by the state under legislation passed in 2002, the new 66,000-square-foot center represents a downsizing from the design originally proposed, pre-Katrina. However, the structure will incorporate most of the same features planned for that building, including a “wet lab” (a highly controlled environment required for the production of biocompounds), two floors of office suites that can house small bioscience businesses, and a clinical manufacturing facility.
“The Louisiana Gene Therapy Research Consortium is putting in a highly regulated manufacturing suite for the biosciences for use by the universities in town and in a multi-state region,” Miscenich says. He adds that temporary quarters are available to interested businesses while the new center is being built.
In addition, the bioscience district will develop a greater sense of place with the construction of a new Louisiana Cancer Research Consortium in New Orleans. At an estimated cost of $98 million, the planned 175,000-square-foot center eventually will house state-of-the-art cancer research equipment at a site along Tulane Avenue.
The center will use coordinated research and education programs to attract a world-class faculty to develop innovative cancer therapies and treatment programs.
As planning for these facilities continues, the biosciences initiative’s Cain notes that some of the group’s members continue to hold their breath over what many consider the lynchpin of the entire district. “First and foremost, we need to get the LSU and VA hospitals developed downtown,” she says.
A new federal Department of Veterans Affairs hospital and a new teaching hospital for Louisiana State University were jointly proposed many months ago. Both entities have said their planning continues as Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration reviews the business plan for the LSU institution.