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Entrepreneurs part of changing healthcare landscape in New Orleans

Dr. Jolly. Photo: #IDEAinsider

Dr. Jolly. Photo: #IDEAinsider

The remarkable story of transformation in New Orleans is unfolding in perhaps one of the most unexpected places.

At least that's what local healthcare professionals like Tarun Jolly believe. Jolly, a physician turned entrepreneur, founded Renaissance RX, a New Orleans-based company that uses DNA and toxicology testing to help doctors personalize prescriptions for patients.

Born out of the New Orleans BioInnovation Center, an incubator that houses biotechnology businesses, the firm is rooted in a relatively new and fast-growing field called pharmacogenomics, which uses genetic testing to tailor medication doses and treatments for patients. The company currently employs 800 people in 44 states, generating most of its revenue outside of Louisiana.

New Orleans Bio Innovation Center located two blocks away from the new biomedical district. Photo: #IDEAInsider

New Orleans Bio Innovation Center located two blocks away from the new biomedical district. Photo: #IDEAInsider

"We really want to be the company that is able to plant the flag in the city of New Orleans to be the world-wide leader for industries centered around molecular diagnostics," Jolly said.

He says the environment in New Orleans can foster that with the new biomedical district, a 1,500 acre development spanning the downtown and Mid-City areas of New Orleans which encompass two new hospitals: University Medical Center, and the Veterans Affairs hospital.

Jolly believes these factors could pave the way for New Orleans to become a leader in healthcare, and potentially personalized medicine.

Economic developers have identified the potential that New Orleans has to become the next healthcare hub. This week, they held a discussion on the potential, and challenges the city faces.

Peter Ragusa, co-founder Better Day Health, a software company that combines speech-to-text mobile devices, and web-based technology to streamline doctors' clinical documentation, shares in that belief.

Co-founders of Better Day Health Rand and Peter Ragusa, and Jeff Miller. Photo: #IDEAInsider

Co-founders of Better Day Health Rand and Peter Ragusa, and Jeff Miller. Photo: #IDEAInsider

Ragusa says the city has developed a prime space for healthcare companies to start and grow through tax incentives, startup funding, and pro-bono consulting services. Better Day Health initially launched through The Idea Village, a non-profit organization that supports entrepreneurs in New Orleans. Several similar programs have sprouted throughout the city over the past three years, with many specializing in specific industries.

As a medical student, Ragusa became frustrated by the amount of time spent on recording patient information, and found the process of inputting information on a computer to be a barrier between the doctor-patient relationship.

"I think these two new hospitals and the circumstances in and around New Orleans present a lot of opportunity to not only have an impact at the population health level, but also at the individual health level with the various genomics research and chronic condition research that's happening at LSU and with groups like Renaissance RX. I think this area is the next wave of healthcare and personalized medicine," Ragusa said.

However, challenges still exist for a city and state that lacks a strong presence of investors with expertise in medicine and biotechnology.

In the past, early stage funding has been a challenge for biotechnology based startups, according to Kris Khalil, manager of the Bio Fund, which provides funding for startups that come through the New Orleans Bio Innovation Center.

"Prior to two or three years ago, it was difficult for a company to come into the city and get early stage seed capital for their business. The landscape has changed however," Khalil said.

Two weeks ago, the South Coast Angel Fund announced it is actively recruiting new investors in Louisiana to start a second round of funding focusing on industries including biotechnology.

Venture capital investments in biotechnology and life sciences accounted for 32 percent of all VC funding in Louisiana in 2013, an increase from 9 percent two years earlier, according to data compiled for the Louisiana Venture and Angel Capital Report.

Louisiana Children's Medical Center, a non-profit organization that oversees operations for several hospitals in New Orleans, also recently announced a $100,000 investment to further support development of the New Orleans BioInnovation and Health Services. This signals the first anchor institution investment in this new biomedical district.

A rendering of University Medical Center in the new biomedical district. Photo: biodistrictneworleans.org

A rendering of University Medical Center in the new biomedical district. Photo: biodistrictneworleans.org

A larger concern now is employing these medical institutions and companies.

Khalil says the biggest challenge is ensuring that the job market can accommodate these highly specialized companies.

"There needs to be more specialized employees with the experience working in healthcare to help fill these positions because as a company likes Renaissance RX grows, they're going to need more than just lab technicians, they're going to need people that are building and researching and developing the next new technology that they can grow their company around," Khalil said.

It may be too early to say what New Orleans can specialize in around healthcare though.

"We're not going to be Houston, and we're not going to be Birmingham. New Orleans needs to find a healthcare identity. I don't think you can find that overnight. I think it's going to be a process," Khalil said.

Still, the prospect of a city known for its' lethargic lifestyle, shifting towards innovation in healthcare, is exciting.

This post originally was published on the #IDEAinsider blog. Summer Suleiman writes for NolaVie and IDEAinsider. Contact her at [email protected].

Summer Suleiman is a health writer and blogger who writes about her experience living healthy (or trying to) in a city best known for its fabulous (unhealthy) food and debauchery. You can read about her journey saying no to po’boys and Sazeracs, and yes to kale and juicing, at www.HealthySummer.me or on Twitter @summersuleiman.