Biomanufacturing Brings Life-Changing Opportunities to North Carolinians

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Biomanufacturing is big business in North Carolina and offers incredible opportunity to those who seek career paths within it.

That is not hyperbole. It's straight talk from some bright new entrants to the industry, and from and those who run the companies that employ them.

All shared moving stories about how this work is changing their lives on January 17 at the Biomanufacturing and Process Development (BPD) Spotlight on Education Symposium hosted by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

Essential to the industry’s success is a workforce of “skilled professionals,” who are both well-educated and well-trained with hands-on practice to perform this vital work, explained Gary Gilleskie, Ph.D., in opening remarks.

Gilleskie is acting executive director and director of operations at the Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center (BTEC) at North Carolina State University. The BPD Exchange Group, one of 20-plus industry- or topic-oriented groups supported statewide by NCBiotech, organized the afternoon-long symposium.

Between Gilleskie’s overview of the industry and two panel discussions attendees collected information about and networked with representatives of the 10 education and training programs. The first panel featured inspiring stories of opportunity from recent graduates of some of the programs. The second featured industry leaders providing insights about the opportunities at their companies and advice on what it takes to prepare for and get hired for careers in their organizations.

Oneal Campbell, who works in the laboratory at Merck, moved the audience with his story of how losing his younger sister to a terminal disease in his native Jamaica prompted him to pursue a career in pharmaceuticals.

Thai, Wiley, Campbell
Joseph Thai, Natasha Wiley, Oneal Campbell

“That desire was in me that I don’t want to see nobody else [sic] suffer the way my sister did,” he explained. “So, I said, ‘I am going to go into some pharmaceutical program.’

“Now I am fulfilling my desire,” he continued. “It might not be for that medicine my sister wanted. But every time a newborn baby cry [sic], I know that the vaccine that we make at Merck is going probably to be one of the shots those kids are going to get.”

First, he earned an associate degree in biopharmaceutical technology at Wake Technical Community College. Then he completed his bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences with a minor in chemistry at North Carolina Central University. Through the BRITE (Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise) program at NCCU, he gained invaluable hands-on training that led to his entry into a bioprocessing job at Merck. Eventually, he applied for his current position in the lab.

Campbell’s career path illustrates three of the programs in the consortium of education and training programs for biomanufacturing jobs in North Carolina formed in 2002 as NCBioImpact, explained Gilleskie.

Funded by $70 million from the GoldenLEAF Foundation, NCBioImpact is a partnership of North Carolina organizations created to enhance the trained workforce for biotechnology and other life science employers by educating students and retraining workers from other fields. It partners with the North Carolina Community College System and the University of North Carolina System to provide specialized hands-on training programs for the companies eager to hire. Many of these companies continue to invest in their workers by with financial support for tuition, flexible schedules and company-sponsored training to develop and retain them for meaningful, well-paying long-term careers.

Graduates tell inspiring stories

Amanda Walter
Amanda Walter

Amanda Walter, now a technology and engineering specialist at Merck, wanted to move into biomanufacturing. She needed a program through which to gain the hands-on training necessary for this career move that was offered in the evening, because she worked full-time.

“BTEC was a good fit for me and provided that bridge between my undergraduate biology degree and my more engineering, hands-on focus,” she said. “In my position now I am directly applying the skills and education I received from BTEC.”

Not all entryways require a four-year degree from a UNC university first, however. One panelist, who asked that her name not be published, was working on a nursing degree at Wake Technical Community College. Life circumstances changed, so she pivoted to a career working in a sterile “clean” room at Biogen culturing cells in the “upstream,” or beginning of the process of manufacturing large, complex molecules the company uses in therapies to treat neurodegnerative disorders (decline of brain or nervous system tissue). She took courses at BioNetwork, which provides hands-on training in affiliation with Wake Tech, and will continue her undergraduate degree program with tuition support from Biogen. These courses were critical to her current position, she explained. The first time she applied – before taking the BioNetwork courses – Biogen did not hire her.

Others on the panel represented different types of careers and their entryways through education and training to follow these paths.

Natasha Wiley is a quality control associate at Biogen. A graduate of NCCU with a bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences, she also underwent training through BRITE. Joseph Thai, who is a manufacturing specialist at AveXis, graduated from NCSU with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering with a concentration in biomanufacturing through BTEC. AveXis is investing $55 million in a new Durham manufacturing facility to manufacture its proprietary gene therapy to treat three types of spinal muscular atrophy.

Industry leaders say they are hiring

“We’re hiring tons of people,” said Rick Lawless, who is in a new role in training at AveXis, as he introduced himself. That set the tone for others industry leaders on the second panel to weigh in about their respective companies’ workforce needs. They spoke of both the type of skills they want to see in applicants and about the training they offer to new hires. Prior to AveXis, Lawless was a trainer at BTEC for over 12 years, noting that two of the previous panelists are his former students.

A rapt audience learns of biomanufacturing options in North Carolina
A rapt audience learns of biomanufacturing options in North Carolina

The consensus of this panel was that applicants are better prepared for jobs in biomanufacturing than they were before the education and training programs associated with NCBioImpact began. Knowledge of good manufacturing practice (GMP) that follows guidelines set by regulatory agencies for production of pharmaceutical products to ensure consistency and quality is just one example.

“A typical Kymanox hire, about six months in, they’re indistinguishable from someone who’s got about three years’ experience in the field,” said Stephen Perry, CEO and founder of Kymanox. “It’s an indication of how well-prepared they came in and how quickly they assimilate all the information that’s on Google and Wikipedia and at their fingertips.”

The industry panel also emphasized the importance of “soft skills,” in addition to the hands-on technical skills and broader education in math and science. These are skills such as networking, communication, teamwork, leadership, time management and responsiveness to contact during the hiring process.

They recommended involvement in the International Society of Pharmaceutical Engineers (ISPE), a participant in the symposium, as well. Chapters at area schools give students opportunities to learn and practice these soft skills. Members of the earlier panel of new graduates agreed.

Gary Armstrong, head of operations for Pfizer in Sanford, responded to an attendee’s question about workforce diversity in the industry.

“Diversity is very important to us,” he said.

Andrew Bruce, senior manager of bioprocess development at United Therapeutics, agreed. He noted that a little over half of its lab personnel are women and that they host women in science conferences.

“It’s one of the most diverse companies I have ever worked for, and I am proud of that,” he said.

“When you create a diverse team, you create a strong team. It’s better for business and what everyone should be doing,” added Perry of Kymanox.

Scott Fisher, director of engineering at Patheon’s Greenville site, explained that his organization rotates people through different manufacturing sites around the world, which develops them, increases diversity and introduces team members to fresh ideas.

All agreed that the skilled professionals – both well-educated and well-trained – available for hire in North Carolina are a major asset for economic growth here, in terms of attracting biomanufacturers. What is needed right now are more of them educated, trained and ready to be hired.

Additional programs participating in the symposium were: Campbell University, Durham Technical Community College, East Carolina University and Vance-Granville Community College.

Elizabeth Witherspoon, Ph.D., NCBiotech Writer
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