Editor’s note: BioWatch is a regular feature on Fridays.The North Carolina Technological Development Authority’s 20,000 square foot LifeScience Center has seen a lot of activity in the last four months, says Director John Draper.

Two new start-ups moved into the center.

Norcarex, founded by Ed Noga of North Carolina State University’s veterinary medicine department, is exploring the potential for antibiotic substances found in fish cells.

The fish cell antibiotics may help the company develop a fish stress test for the growing aquaculture industry. Norcarex also is looking for pharmaceutical partners to examine the potential of developing human antibiotics from the fish cell substances, which have shown activity against antibiotic resistant human pathogens.

Room for Vesta to grow

Vesta Therapeutics purchased a liver repair technology previously being developed by financially troubled public company Incara.

Vesta president Carolyn Underwood, formerly head of Artecel, tells Local Tech Wire the new company has six scientists on staff, five from the Incara group and one Vesta hired.

Underwood says Vesta occupies 5,000 square feet in the center, 2,000 square feet of it as laboratory space. “We’re very happy with it,” Underwood says, “not only because the price is right, but it also gives us room to grow. We weren’t sure how quickly we want to grow, but here the space can grow with us and when we outgrow it, we’ll move. We’ve already added another office.”

Vesta hopes to transplanting liver cells or liver stem cells to people with severe liver disease may help repair the damaged organs. “We have been able to pull out stem cells we believe will be able to proliferate.”

She says one donor liver may be able to supply a large quantity of transplant cells. Vesta is currently developing its business plan and strategy. Vesta is a portfolio company of Toucan Capital Corporation of Bethesda, MD.

Winston-Salem based Kucera Pharmaceuticals has lab space in the center but keeps its administrative offices in the Piedmont Triad Research Park in Winston Salem.

Kucera, a 2001 spin-off of Wake Forest University health sciences and the school of pharmacy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is developing patented small molecules capable of acting as novel anti-viral therapies. It is also developing anti-cancer agents.

New tenants expected

Draper says the center has 5,000 to 6,000 square feet of laboratory space and 2,500 square feet of office space remaining.

“We have five or six groups that have proposals or are thinking about it,” he says. “If they all landed tomorrow we’d be out of space. He says “We hope to have a couple more in a few weeks. We have proposals from two start-ups, one beginning from zero, the other a spin-out from a five-year-old start-up.”

Cyprotex, a company based on technology from the United Kingdom, has left the center and Draper believes they’re “pretty much gone.”

Draper joined the NCTDA in 1999 to help the then troubled organization straighten out its finances. “I took over the finances and put in controls,” he says. He’s been operating director of the LifeScience Center and the First Flight Venture Center also run by the NCTDA for the last two years.

EcoGenomix wins $20,000

EcoGenomix, a spin-out from the UNC-Greensboro, won the $20,000 second place prize in the final round of the Triad Entrepreneurial Initiatives business-plan competition. In addition to the money, it gets a free year of incubator space and mentoring services at the Greensboro-based Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship.

The company designs systems that test water quality for a variety of chemical and biological threats.

EcoGenomix also won $10,000 in the competition’s second phase.

The Winston-Salem Alliance and Action Greensboro founded the Triad Entrepreneurial Initiatives in October 2001 to nurse start-up businesses and foster high-growth companies. TEI sponsors classes and three business plan competitions. It has awarded $250,000 to entrepreneurs since its inception.