Source: | Adam Bruns | June 2019

Four years after choosing a site in Florida, Coquí Pharma’s CEO explains why a crucial medical isotope project is now landing in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Coquí Pharma Founder and CEO Carmen Bigles says Oak Ridge could be a nuclear medicine center of excellence for the United States.
Photo courtesy of Coquí Pharma

Like the tiny Puerto Rican frog it’s named for, Coquí Radio Pharmaceuticals four years ago found its way to Florida, where the Puerto Rican company had reached an agreement with the University of Florida Foundation for a 25-acre parcel of land in Progress Corporate Park in Alachua County. But as with diagnosis and treatment of diseases, there are times when the first answer isn’t the right one.

In April, one of the finalist states for that original decision (along with Louisiana) landed the project after all, as Coquí announced that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) had officially transferred land for the facility and provided research support through the national laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The transfer of 206 acres at a site historically known as Duct Island in the Heritage Center Industrial Park places the company in a strategic location adjacent to federal research assets, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the Y-12 National Security Complex.

The Coquí facility is expected to be fully operational in 2025 and will provide 206 “high paying, permanent jobs,” said Coquí in its announcement. Yes, that’s right: one job per acre.

It’s such a natural fit, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t the first pick the first time around. But it may also be a case of missing what’s right under your nose … and a case study for why regions who think their value and assets are widely known have to keep reinforcing that message.

in an interview with Site Selection as she prepared to travel to Oak Ridge, Carmen Bigles, founder and CEO of Coquí Radio Pharmaceuticals Corp., says the first site she was ever offered outside of Puerto Rico was in Tennessee, but admits she was not as familiar with the entire energy and nuclear fields then as she is now.

“When it was offered to me, I didn’t realize the gem of Oak Ridge, especially for a company like ours,” she says. A few years later, she was asked to speak at a conference taking place at ORNL where she opened students’ eyes about the ramifications of their studies, explaining that it wasn’t just experiments, but work that could help save and improve human lives. During the visit, her eyes were opened too.

“We had spent a lot of money on the Florida site, but they made me an offer I could not refuse,” she says.

Once fully operational, the facility will be the first of its kind in the U.S., which currently relies on imports to meet the demand for Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), used in 18 million medical procedures a year in the U.S. Mo-99, relied on to diagnose and treat diseases including brain, heart, lung, liver, renal, oncologic, and muscle skeletal diseases, is the basis for the most widely used medical isotope in the world, Technetium-99m (Tc-99m), which is used in approximately 40,000 medical diagnostic procedures per day in the United States. With its short half-life, the isotope needs to be used in patients very quickly after it is created.

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