When Aaron Miscenich joined the New Orleans BioInnovation Center in 2004, research in the life sciences seldom led to real-world opportunities.
Researchers were inclined to publish their findings and move on to the next project, said Miscenich, president of the center. If they did patent the work, the technology often was licensed away. New Orleans didn’t receive the full value of the technology.
The New Orleans BioInnovation Center on Canal Street was established in 2002 as a nonprofit technology business incubator. Tenants who operate within an incubator have a greater success rate — and hire more employees — than those outside an incubator, Miscenich said. And, they are more likely to stay in their community.
With a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of New Mexico and an MBA from Tulane University, Miscenich brought a winning combination of skills and experience to NOBIC. But when flooding devastated the community after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, he was forced to adjust his vision for the organization.
“At that point, we took a step back and decided to reevaluate the whole plan and start from scratch,” he said. “We wanted to find a way for the community to rebuild itself and started looking around for its strengths.”
The city had two health science centers, for instance, a notable pharmacy program at Xavier University and new hospitals underway. Communities throughout the country were building jobs and industries around these types of institutions, so why couldn’t New Orleans follow suit?
A four-story center
Soon, people began to understand the value of the BioInnovation Center. Construction for today’s sleek four-story building began in 2009 and was completed in 2011.
Miscenich, with the help of his staff, hired a commercialization coordinator. His group began collaborating with teams of fellows who had earned undergraduate degrees in the life sciences and were pursuing MBAs. They met with more than 100 researchers and worked alongside the universities in an effort to ascertain the market value of the technologies that were under development.
NOBIC, which is supported by both private and government grants, has helped about 70 companies (more than 30 are housed there) plus venture capital companies and consultants in the life sciences or environmental psychologies.
The companies that operate within the building must pay a market-based rent, to ensure that their business is viable, but technical assistance is free.
The range of companies fostered by NOBIC is diverse. And each entrepreneur has a unique story.
Francis James, for example, combined his passion for filmmaking and medicine when he co-founded TRUE-see Systems. This company creates digital pictures for clinicians to properly document a patient’s medical record, which in turn provides proof of medical necessity and improves treatment decisions.
By cultivating his business within the BioInnovation Center, he has been able to attend public workshops and meet with emerging entrepreneurs.
“It’s nice to know other people like yourself, in the same town, who are meeting the same challenges and succeeding,” he said. “By having this beautiful new building and organization, it validates this kind of industry in a town that traditionally that was very focused on tourism and other industries.”
Local entrepreneurs Crutcher Reiss and Sarah Kirkwood Reiss have launched myMix Nutrition — an e-commerce platform that offers customized powder-based dietary supplements. The husband and wife team conceived the idea while living in New York City and working on Wall Street, but they recently relocated their headquarters into the New Orleans BioInnovation Center.
Like most entrepreneurs, the couple encountered roadblocks while launching their business. Crutcher Reiss explained that dietary supplement manufacturers often have a set number of products on the market and operate within a “mass production” model, so they were challenged with creating a “mass customization” model — and with finding a lab facility. The business was able to take advantage of NOBIC’s lab facilities and receive advice from local experts.
“What I’ve seen is that this city has become more conscious about nutrition, health and fitness. So it’s not just a good time to be an entrepreneur here. It’s a good time to be an entrepreneur promoting health,” Sarah Reiss said.
Dr. Suhir Sinha and Anne Montgomery have created InnoGenomics Technologies. Together, they are developing a next-generation test kit for human identification laboratories that analyzes excessively degraded DNA samples — including samples found in scenes of mass disaster.
NOBIC was instrumental when Sinha and Montgomery applied for their first grant. Having a stocked lab facility also helped.
Sinha noted that they did not need to spend money on basic equipment, only specialized equipment. But the biggest help, he said, has been NOBIC’s supportive staff.
InnoGenomics recently received a new grant and is planning its next step.
“Interns with MBAs have helped us with business plans and financial modeling, and other business components that are not in our areas of expertise,” added Montgomery, who shared a piece of InnoGenomic’s business strategy. “We work really hard. We’re honest and a little naïve. Because if you’re not naïve and know what you’re getting into, you’d probably think twice before doing it.”
Welcome to the network
Miscenich emphasized that NOBIC does not launch the companies, commercialize their technologies or make decisions for the entrepreneurs. NOBIC provides resources to send the entrepreneurs on to a path of prosperity and assists with applying for grants. It sponsors competitions, with cash prizes, such as the BioChallenge life sciences business pitch contest coming up in November.
“It’s not only about helping them write a business plan,” Miscenich said. “It’s about networking with experienced entrepreneurs and introducing them to IP (international patent) attorneys and other folks who are knowledgeable in the community. Venture capitalists and business leaders help them (tenants) understand the commercialization process.”
The open design of the eco-friendly building, which is flooded with natural light, is meant to facilitate the progress of each client. Communal spaces invite tenants to step out of their labs and offices and visit with other entrepreneurs. The structure includes a courtyard, balconies on each floor, spacious conference rooms and state-of-the-art lab facilities.
“We’ve tried to create an environment where there is strong collaboration among all of the different players — whether it’s university researchers, capital companies, or physicists,” said Miscenich. “We’re trying to get them to learn from one another.”
Right now, the New Orleans BioInnovation Center is 90 percent full. And by nature, an incubator is essentially a transition facility for startups that are on the verge of expanding into a successful company.
“The risk is that, if we don’t find space for them, they will leave New Orleans. That would be a tragedy,” Miscenich said. “We are developing the concept of a graduation facility, so that these companies can expand into larger footprints.”
The New Orleans BioInnovation Center is located at 1441 Canal St. For information visit www.NewOrleansBio.com.