University of Louisiana at Lafayette leaders hope a pharmaceutical development company's decision to set up shop at the school's primate research center will be the first in a long line of new partnerships as the facility works to expand its scope.

Crown Bioscience, a California-based drug discovery and development company with facilities worldwide, announced plans last week to invest $1 million to renovate a vacant space at UL-Lafayette's New Iberia Research Center and create 10 new research jobs there.

NIRC has long done contract testing on primates for private drug companies at its sprawling 100-acre campus, but there has been relatively little original research on site.

Three years ago, university officials began contemplating a shift to attract more funding for homegrown research and more partnerships to work hand-in-hand with private companies on medical breakthroughs, said Ramesh Kolluru, UL-Lafayette vice president for research, innovation and economic development.

"We felt that we were selling ourselves short," Kolluru said. "Not too many communities can create something like this from the ground up, so we should take advantage of that."

Kolluru was among a crowd of elected officials, university leaders and economic development players who came to NIRC Thursday to formally welcome the Crown Bioscience leadership team.

Kolluru said the company's expansion to NIRC signals a major shift for the research center, and he hopes it will be the first of many such announcements as NIRC begins to flex its research muscle.

"Companies come not just to work here and go away but to come and work with us," Kolluru said. "So now, we are creating new knowledge here."

He said one of the first moves in shifting the focus of the center was recruiting Francois Villinger, a respected researcher, as NIRC director about a year ago.

Since then, Villinger has secured more than $10 million in National Institutes of Health funding for research projects at the center, Kolluru said.

Villinger said one of his top priorities is to highlight the capabilities of NIRC, which with more than 6,000 animals is the largest primate research center in the United States.

"The center is the largest and the most unknown," Villinger said. "We are trying to really attract more people."

Villinger said Crown Bioscience will renovate a now-vacant 20,000-square-foot building on the NIRC campus for its research facility, and NIRC staff will provide animal care and lab support services.

Crown Bioscience CEO Jean-Pierre Wery said the company is planning for a long-term relationship.

"I think this is the beginning of a really good story," Wery said.

NIRC, like primate research centers across the country, has increasingly found itself in the crosshairs of animal welfare groups, and the welfare group SAEN released an open letter to Crown Bioscience on Thursday urging the company to withdraw from the NIRC deal.


Follow Richard Burgess on Twitter, @rbb100.​