North Carolina's Animal Health and Nutrition Sector
Over the past year my colleague Nandini Mendu, Ph.D., senior director, agriculture sector development, has been working on a strategic project looking into North Carolina’s animal health and nutrition (AH&N) sector.
Though this sector has been historically active in our state, it is now starting to expand around the world. Nandini is using research to develop in-depth reports, some already complete, that showcase North Carolina's strengths and growth opportunities compared to other areas of the nation, in hopes of revealing a pathway to successful expansion. I wanted to take this opportunity to share her findings.
Michelle: Animals are such an integral part of agriculture, definitely the cutest part in my opinion, so I’m personally excited that the Ag Sector Development (ASD) team is now making AH&N a lead focus. So Nandini, as the Biotech Center leads this initiative, what do you think was the driving force behind this strategic focus on the animal health and nutrition cluster?
Nandini: NCBiotech, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, has a successful history of investing in and growing the life science sector in the state. Part of this success is based on the foundation provided by three large plant biotech companies, the development of two ag focused accelerators/incubators and the activity of over 120 ag tech companies. The ASD team, which was formed almost 10 years ago, was very much a part of this success and today we continue to focus on accelerating and expanding the ag tech ecosystem in NC.
AH&N is already a highly important aspect of the state's ag sector, so we chose to focus on it as a cluster to grow at this time. Right now the timing works because North Carolina State University is working on a new food animal research initiative plus there’s a general global uptick in the number of startups and investments in the sector. So based on our community’s stakeholder interest, our state’s existing assets and resources, the globally expanding sector, this focus can better position NC as a leader in AH&N.
Michelle: I know all the reasons why I love NC, but to those in the AH&N sector, why is our state so well-suited for the successful development of this cluster?
Nandini: Well, as you know, agriculture is the largest industry in North Carolina and brings in $12.5 billion in cash receipts, according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. Livestock, dairy and poultry industries alone contribute over $8 billion annually. So the historical agriculture foundation is here.
Then you look across the state, at the more-than-50 companies working in pharmaceuticals, vaccines, parasite control, diagnostics, nutrition, testing, and devices, and see that the industry base is also here. And we can’t leave out our two land grant universities – NCSU and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University – both of which have animal and poultry science programs. Not to mention, NCSU has the College of Veterinary Medicine, which was ranked third out of 28 U.S. colleges by USNews.com. Then on the Centennial campus there's the Biomedical Partnership Center, which functions as an incubator and has become a highly sought-after location for companies that want to set up collaborations here. And nearby there's the 4-year-old Comparative Medicine Institute, with a mission of translating basic research into solutions for both animal and human health.
All of this provides a welcoming environment for innovative companies looking to relocate or expand. NCSU is one of a rare few that has a feed mill that can actually produce its own experimental feed, while the four research farms operated jointly by the NCDA&CS and NCSU offer ruminant, swine and poultry research, which is a tremendous asset to our state
Michelle: So what’s next? We have the assets. We have stakeholder interest. We have the ag industry foundation, extraordinary land grants and amazing collaborative ag tech ecosystem.
What needs to happen to take NC’s AH&N cluster to the next level?
Nandini: Every cluster initiative starts with identifying your stakeholders, engaging them and then unifying them around a common vision and goals. Our stakeholders are a key driving force in this specific cluster development and we are currently working with them on developing our common vision.
Right now that vision seems to center around four major activities: creating opportunities for research collaboration; supporting innovations and technology development to capitalize on the current converging of human and animal health sectors, including nutrition, prevention and treatment, while also building a sector-specific trained workforce; encouraging company competition and cooperation; and promoting investment in startups so that our AH&N cluster will grow successfully.
Michelle: So stakeholders came to you and said, "Animal health and nutrition, Yeah! Let’s do this!” And now, together, you’re defining the game plan for developing and growing the cluster. Sounds amazing! What else has been done to get this initiative underway?
Nandini: We've met with the major sector players here in NC, both academic and industry, as I mentioned. By working with the universities, we are better able to understand their short-term goals and initiatives, so we can now align our “game plan,” as you called it, to work together in growing the cluster. We have established a joint steering committee that launched the AH&N Exchange Group which facilitates networking programs for all professionals and supporters to gather, network and discuss various relevant topics. This offers a platform to minimize information gaps and also allows participants to see opportunities in less-obvious places. It has even facilitated collaborations for research and commercial activities already.
Michelle: Wow you have been a busy bee! So I know you’re still working on the unified vision and goals with stakeholders, but what do you, professional you, hope to see for North Carolina's AH&N cluster down the road?
Nandini: My vision is for the cluster to develop so that it properly reflects the size of the animal ag and companion-animal industry here in NC. I think we can develop novel livestock farming and health solutions that allow NC, already a leading producer of hogs and poultry, to maintain or grow its industry. This would allow us to capitalize on the innovative research and technology platforms developed by the university and industry players, furthering education and development of talent, keeping pace with the changes in technology and demand. Ultimately my vision is that our state’s cluster will unite and work together to achieve synergistic growth and success.
Michelle: I think that’s a vision we can all get behind. Anything that brings value to our existing ecosystem is a positive in my book. Thank you for putting so much into getting this off the ground and organizing a game plan.
Nandini: This is what I love so it’s my pleasure. And if anyone has questions I’m glad to share more, including more of the detailed national findings which we hope to have ready soon.
Michelle: North Carolina really is a special place but we didn’t need a report to show us that. Now when do I get to play with the animals? I thought you were going to bring some to this interview. You were talking about the convergence of animal and human health so I thought there might be piggy yoga in my future. That’s the only reason I agreed to do this.