Saturday, January 30, 1999

firm may leave
Hawaii over money

ProBio America says it
needs venture capital
or it will leave

By Helen Altonn


The company that holds the license to the University of Hawaii's mice-cloning technology will leave the state soon if it can't find venture capital, according to its chief operating officer.

"Everything is here but the money," said Laith Reynolds, who founded ProBio America Ltd. to market and commercialize UH professor Ryuzo Yanagimachi's "Honolulu Technique" of mice-cloning.

He said he's "under orders" from shareholders to leave if he "doesn't get some answers in a few weeks" about capital.

Reynolds and others speaking yesterday at a Biotechnology Business Forum described promising commercial potential for UH research developments.

Many obstacles also were cited, though, from lack of capital and restrictive regulations to intellectual property constraints and worldwide competition.

Reynolds -- who also heads American Tropical Plants Inc., which has developed a caffeine-free coffee plant -- said Hawaii has a broad base of technologies to build on.

"The performance in professor Yanagimachi's laboratory is nothing short of stunning and will continue to be so," he said. "Cloning of human cells is a hot topic. . . . The biggest nonadvantage we have is local capital."

Reynolds said a big problem in doing business here is convincing investors that people in Hawaii are serious and the state isn't all sun and palm trees.

But Bill Richardson of HMS Hawaii, a venture capital fund, said, "Things are finally coming together. Let's keep the momentum going."

Courtney Brown, president of the Hawaii Venture Capital Association, said he is in discussions to see if something can be done.

He said he has formed Venture Capital Group Inc. to provide mentoring services to new companies. With business and government working together, he said, "There is potential here of really doing something and setting the direction for the next decade."

Other UH projects with strong commercial biotechnology potential were described at the forum, sponsored by University Connections:

bullet John Hu, professor of plant pathology, is working on genetically engineered banana plants with better quality and resistance to viruses and pests.

bullet E. Gordon Grau, interim director, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, and his team are trying to improve fish growth with hormones and make them disease resistant.

bullet Sheila Chong said Hawaii Venture Group, LLC holds pending intellectual property rights on a new natural nematicide. She said there is a "tremendous opportunity" for it to fill the void when highly toxic and environmentally harmful pesticides now used for nematodes are banned.

bullet Piera S. Sun, protein chemist and molecular biologist at the Pacific Biomedical Research Center, is working on gene transfer technology to develop shrimp that can grow faster and withstand viral infections and stressful environments.

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