Obatala Sciences and LaCell moving on up to UNO campus

Dr. Trivia Frazier, CEO of Obatala Sciences and project director at sister company LaCell, both of which are "graduating" from the BioInnovation Center incubator space on Canal Street to the Advanced Materials Research Institute on the University of New Orleans campus.

The University of New Orleans has attracted another technology company to its Advanced Materials Research Institute, as it grows its roster of commercial research companies coming out of their "incubator" stage looking for access to qualified employees and expensive equipment.

The addition of Obatala Sciences, together with its sister company, LaCell, brings to four the number of companies that have relocated to the AMRI facilities in the past two years.

Obatala Sciences has been housed for the last seven years at the New Orleans BioInnovation Center, or NOBIC, a start-up "incubator" facility on Canal Street that has recently run into financial troubles.

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The move to AMRI coincides with Obatala's first round of venture capital fund-raising, talks with potential investors having started last month with the hope of raising $4 million, said Trivia Frazier, the company's CEO.

"We're now exiting 'stealth mode'," she says. "We've been under the radar for most of the last seven years but we're starting to ramp up in terms of going after state and federal research grants, and other activities like sales."

The move to AMRI will give Obatala, a biotechnology company that offers pharmaceutical companies quicker ways to move from animal to human testing, access to qualified students and faculty and to equipment it couldn't afford to buy or lease on its own.

That is the same proposition that attracted Advano, a company using silicon nanotechnology to develop batteries for the renewable energy sector, two years ago after the two founders had just secured $500,000 in funding, according to John Wiley, AMRI's director.

Advano's co-founders, Alexander Girau and Shiva Adireddy had been doing research at Tulane University and "were originally just looking to borrow some equipment but we said, 'hey, instead of us bringing it to you why don't you move here," said Wiley.

The company re-located in July, 2017 and "once that proved workable, start-ups in this town all seem to know each other, so that led to InnoGenomics," a company specializing in DNA processing for medical and forensics labs. InnoGenomics also had been at NOBIC for its early years and moved up to AMRI as it grew and required more staff and access to equipment.

Meanwhile, Advano has gone from just the two founders to a staff of 20 and is set to move to UNO's Center for Energy Resource Management building this summer.

Developing the private sector relationships with tech companies makes sense for the university and its students, Wiley says. "We have $10 million of state-of-the-art equipment and having this additional income helps...Also, it makes a lot of sense for students having employment and internship possibilities right on campus, especially as a large percentage of our student population are non-traditional in that they may be working, have kids and so on."

AMRI is talking to other commercial ventures and non-profits about moving to its space, including one that is studying wasting disease in the deer population in the northeast U.S., Wiley says.

Kris Khalil, NOBIC's interim CEO, who is working on a new business plan aimed at resuscitating the center by bringing it into closer partnerships with the universities, said the Obatala/LaCell move is the kind of thing NOBIC was designed to foster.

"This success story is a direct result of NOBIC’s efforts as a force multiplier for the region's biotech industry, and is exactly the type of trajectory contemplated when NOBIC was established," he said.

"The companies will gain the space needed to allow significant future growth, and be directly involved as UNO creates new training for students in biotechnology that will make them ideal employment candidates upon graduation."

Follow Anthony McAuley on Twitter, @AnthonyMcAuley2.