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IC COHORT 3 UPDATE: Leila Safavi-Tehrani had to adapt as COVID-19 impacted her plans

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth article in a series on Cohort 3 of “Innovation Crossroads.” Earlier this year, the cohort graduated from the program. Each article will focus on what’s next for the innovators and their companies.) 

By Kailyn Lamb, Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA

At the start of the pandemic, Leila Safavi-Tehrani found herself across the country in California. After relocating her company Purist to Knoxville to join the “Innovation Crossroads” program in 2019, she had gone back to California for a trip to meet the new director of the lab space at her alma mater, the University of California (UC), Irvine. When the lockdown started, she ended up staying in California.

Safavi-Tehrani is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Purist. She is developing technology that is implemented in nuclear reactors to produce medical-grade radioactive ingredients. (Read more about her work in this teknovation.biz article.) Needless to say, it takes specific space and skills to do this work even in the best of times. Although she was able to gain access to the reactor space at UC Irvine in June, she could not hire workers.

Safavi-Tehrani

“A lot of it fell on me because I couldn’t hire anyone anywhere,” she said. “I barely had access myself.”

Through that access, she could do some experiments and research out of the university’s lab space. She is currently doing research for a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research grant through the National Institutes of Health, which lasts through spring 2022. Then she plans to apply for a Phase II. She also still has access to funding from “Innovation Crossroads.” Due to the pandemic, “Innovation Crossroads” and Department of Energy leadership have given Cohort 3 no-cost extensions on some of the program’s funding, including travel and research funds.

Safavi-Tehrani has recently been working to reach out to university groups and national labs to outsource some projects at Purist, in part to free up some of her time. She also doesn’t have some of the expertise needed for specific projects, she said.

Although Safavi-Tehrani is currently located in California, she is hoping to bring Purist back to the Knoxville region in the future. Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is a “pioneer” in the nuclear research space. While some of those resources exist in California, it’s not quite to the same level as ORNL.

“I was hoping to get a lot more done at Oak Ridge and be able to maximize the resources there,” she said. “The amount of concentrated resources and talent in the nuclear field that they have, there is no match in California.”

She plans to keep in touch with her contacts in the area from the “Innovation Crossroads” program. Even from California, contacts in the Tennessee area have helped to benefit Purist. Safavi-Tehrani hired John Foster through the Launch Tennessee Internship Program last year. He was a part-time team member of the company working out of ORNL until September. Read more in this teknovation.biz article.

Eventually, Safavi-Tehrani said it would be good to have roots in Tennessee for Purist. The region has better access to both the East Coast and middle of the country than California. Lab space is also more available and affordable here, she said.

“My whole goal is to be able to access the network of reactors nationwide,” Safavi-Tehrani said. “I don’t want [Purist] to be concentrated on the West Coast.”

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