Ushering in a new era of biotechnology is no small feat. Both Dr. Trivia Frazier (of Obatala Sciences) and Dr. Sunyoung Kim (of Chosen Diagnostics) have dealt with sizable hurdles surrounding personal career-building, demanding financial obligations, and the propagation of seed ventures in uncharted territories.
If you’re unfamiliar with these two trailblazers, check out the first installment in this series. In our second installment, we’ll explore the challenges that Dr. Frazier and Dr. Kim have faced, the need for biotech innovation in Louisiana, and the strategies our community can learn from these two entrepreneurs’ solutions and successes.
Challenges with Changemaking
For one, there is the glaring problem of gender disparity in the industry. As of 2019, women accounted for a mere 27% of workers in STEM-oriented fields (and have historically made less wages than their male counterparts). Not only have they had to balance their positions as gifted scientists with their personal lives and families, but they have also needed to take up the mantle of business entrepreneurs. Working diligently to commercialize their ideas required a completely different skillset, one that is hardly innate, the reality being that innovation and research in a void do not equate to widespread usage, implementation, and distribution.
All these preexisting obstacles were further complicated by COVID-19. Though the biotech sector at large saw a significant surge in funding due to the global hunger for health science innovation, seed companies, being generally pre-revenue, often experienced many of the same funding droughts as businesses in other industries. With both Obatala and Chosen nurturing impending breakthroughs coinciding with the pandemic, generating unique funding solutions assumed ever-greater urgency.
The New Orleans Bioinnovation Center (NOBIC) has been at the forefront of such changemaking, guiding local entrepreneurs (including Frazier and Kim) through the weeds of leasing, licensing, commercialization, and funding. Over the years, NOBIC has garnered an extensive list of partnerships with both local and national entities, working to provide essential resources that broaden the scope of available opportunities for professionals working within the biotech industry. Through our work with BARDA, EDA, B2S, and the BioFund, among others, NOBIC has played a monumental role in nurturing equity and providing much needed support during trying times. We look forward to continuing to provide this support for many more entrepreneurs in the years to come.
Louisiana’s Need for Biotech Innovation
More and more companies are discovering why Louisiana boasts particularly fertile grounds for seeding biotech ventures—including tax credits, state-of-the-art infrastructure, and tightly-knit professional communities, to name a few. But this budding industry is not without its hurdles, leading to a lack of predicate examples of successful biotech entrepreneurs in the area. Those that have chosen to build their careers in-state, such as Dr. Frazier and Dr. Kim, have found themselves motivated by the challenges closest to home.
There is a persistent need for medical solutions in Louisiana, where many vulnerable demographics remain both underserved and disproportionately affected by preventable illnesses. Dr. Kim feels this profoundly in her work. “I think Louisiana has been underserved by others,” she says. “I think Louisiana has underserved itself.”
Such health disparities run deep, especially those corresponding to class and race. Centuries of biased policies have led to a minority experience steeped in far higher levels of disease incidence, prevalence, and mortality. “We are ranked 49th in health, compared to the other states in our nation. This is partly due to obesity, diabetes, and other issues,” explains Dr. Frazier.
Dr. Kim also saw this inequality materialize during her research process. “Nearly 70% of preemie babies in our communities are African American,” said Dr. Kim, putting them at higher risk for developing necrotizing enterocolitis.
A new partnership between Ochsner Health and Xavier University has announced a ten-year campaign to boost Louisiana’s national health ranking up to 40th place by the year 2030. The initiative aims to develop a variety of collaborative programs targeted at lowering the barriers to accessible healthcare and redistributing valuable community resources through a combination of education, research, and local advocacy. While this plan marks an important step forward, there is still much work to be done to help usher this vision to fruition. In service of this goal, Ochsner Health recently invested in Obatala Sciences to help fast-track their fat-on-a-chip technology.
Luckily, you’d be hard pressed to find professionals more equipped to shoulder these sorts of challenges than Frazier and Kim. Such work reminds us of the foundational nature of biotech innovation—the creation of extraordinary solutions in response to malignancies and setbacks, against extreme odds.
Invigorating New Solutions
What makes the respective successes of these women remarkable isn’t their circumvention of challenge, but rather their ability to embrace it as a riveting and generative part of the process. Dr. Frazier firmly believes that “successful paths forward are only revealed when we are forced to use our creative minds. Challenges are a way to tap into that aspect of thought, and to unleash our greatest potential.”
Great potential, indeed. Despite a global pandemic and economic downturn, Obatala and Chosen have emerged from the worst of the crisis with standout resiliency. They’ve been able to accrue impressive investments (both public and private), they’ve won various pitch challenges throughout, and they’ve spoken at multiple local events. Just last year, for instance, Dr. Frazier was named the recipient of LED’s 2020 Lantern Award for Southeast Louisiana. She also moderated a discussion session with bestselling author Walter Isaacson, whose latest book is about the revolutionary impact of CRISPR technology, during New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW).
In response to new financial pressures brought about by COVID-19, both women spearheaded pilot projects which will help them further their respective technologies. Obatala Sciences has two pilots up and running, which are testing the impact of therapies on normal tissue response as well as evaluating the impact of a breast cancer therapy on human adipose tissue models. These projects provide clients a window into how their compounds operate in real time.
Chosen Diagnostics has garnered Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) funding via both the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. These grants will help “develop the technology further to ultimately [transition] into a clinical setting,” says Dr. Rebecca Buckley, Chosen Diagnostics’ COO and Kim’s right-hand woman.
Both Dr. Kim and Dr. Buckley have re-conceptualized COVID-19 as being in direct conversation with their research. “There are babies who die every day and parents who mourn and don’t have an explanation for this any more than they have an explanation for COVID,” states Kim. As is the case for the coronavirus, NEC can engender swift and heartbreaking bodily harm, with mere hours demarcating the difference between life and death. She continues, “Maybe COVID provided a stronger filter for people to understand what we were doing, because now everyone is living it in their own way. There’s this idea that you don’t know if or when your child’s going to get a disease, [and whether or not] they’re going to survive it.”
On the issue of equity, Dr. Frazier hopes that fat-on-a-chip’s ability to model fat on different demographics and ethnicities will help expedite treatment solutions for ailments that disproportionately affect the black community, such as diabetes and obesity. Chosen’s NECDetect aims to accomplish the same, given the disproportionate number of African American babies born prematurely. Both companies are determined to produce solutions for those who need them the most—right here in the state of Louisiana.
Read About Cultivating Resilience and Opportunity in Installment III
A major theme in both Dr. Frazier’s and Dr. Kim’s journeys has been maintaining an attitude of resilience. Overcoming challenges and finding opportunities are inherent to innovation at every part of the process.
For more of Dr. Frazier’s and Dr. Kim’s insights, read the third and final installment of this series. Follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter for our latest updates.