(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another in a series of seven articles spotlighting the start-ups that comprise Cohort 3 of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s “Innovation Crossroads” program.)
“I’m really passionate about making a contribution in healthcare, utilizing nuclear science and technology,” says Leila Safavi, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Purist Inc.
One of seven recently announced Fellows in Cohort 3 of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) “Innovation Crossroads” (IC) program, Safavi traveled across the country from California to be a participant in the two-year program so she could help address the nation’s heavy reliance on foreign sources for radioisotopes.
It was during her time at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) – Safavi earned three degrees there – that she became passionate about capitalizing on what she described as an underutilized resource to reverse that dependence.
“UCI has a small-scale nuclear reactor,” she says. It is one of 31 such facilities around the country. Many are similar to UCI’s in size, while there are a few others like ORNL’s High Flux Isotope Reactor that are much larger.
“As a graduate student, I wanted to develop technology to allow smaller reactors like UCI’s to be able to produce isotopes at the purity and quality needed for medical applications,” Safavi says. “The second I started on this research, I became passionate about the project.”
You might ask, “How passionate?” Well, she became a licensed Nuclear Reactor Operator.
Later, as a Post-Doc, Safavi continued her research and development activities while also participating in the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program that helps scientifically-focused individuals explore the commercial feasibility of their ideas. She also participated in several UCI business plan competitions, winning two.
“The business plan competition dollars had to go to forming a company,” Safavi explains, so he launched Purist in 2017. The start-up was recently awarded a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Institutes of Health, and it was during the application process for the grant that Safavi connected with researchers at ORNL.
“The expertise and talent in the nuclear field made ORNL’s IC program the best fit for what I’m trying to do,” she says of the decision to come across the country.
With one patent pending, Safavi has many goals to achieve during her two-year fellowship, clearly enhanced by ORNL’s history in nuclear medicine and its more recently achieved reputation in simulation and modelling.
“I want to enhance the radioisotope production process that we developed at UCI, utilizing the many resources afforded to us though the IC program at ORNL” she says. “At the end of the two years, I want to improve what we’ve done in the proof of concept we developed and get to the radioisotope purity and quality of what we need for medical applications.”
Ironically, Safavi recalls briefly meeting Carmen Bigles of Coqui RadioPharmaceuticals Corporation several years ago at the “Women in Nuclear Conference” and says she was inspired by her vision for the company Bigles is planning for Oak Ridge (see our recent teknovation.biz posts here).
“We’re more focused on therapeutic isotopes than diagnostic ones,” Safavi explains.