Growing Biotechnology Assets and Innovation in Southeastern North Carolina
This article was published Wednesday, Feb. 16, in the Wilmington Business Journal’s “Insights” section. It was sponsored content provided by Heather McWhorter, interim director of the University of North Carolina Wilmington Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. It was contributed by Randall Johnson, MBA, executive director of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center Southeastern Office, and Justin T. Streuli, MBA, director of the UNCW Office of Innovation + Commercialization.
When was the last time you checked in on the Biotechnology sector in Wilmington? There is no shortage of impressive stories making headlines recently, but let’s take a deeper dive into the current and emerging opportunities of this regionally impactful cluster.
Quality Chemical Labs (QCL) is experiencing extraordinary growth, recently announcing an additional facility to expand its contract chemistry services. In doubling its footprint by the end of 2022 to a total of 180,000 square feet, QCL is creating jobs and expanding current capabilities to new and existing customers, ensuring growth for years to come.
QCL is not alone. Alcami Corp. continues to expand its presence in Wilmington with a $2 million expansion to its local headquarters. The local investment adds capabilities, infrastructure and, most importantly, jobs.
Late last year Cygnus Technologies, Inc. announced a move to Leland to support its continued development in biotherapeutics. The $10 million facility will house its 50 current employees with room to add another 150 over the next five years.
Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc. recently completed its acquisition of Wilmington-based PPD in a massive $17.4 billion deal, one of the largest sales in this region’s history. PPD started in 1985 and grew to more than 26,000 global employees with around 1,800 located locally at the time of the acquisition. PPD also helped cement Cape Fear as a cluster of the Contract Research industry with dozens of complementary organizations in the area.
In looking for a common thread across the flourishing Biotechnology sector in Wilmington, you will find University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) graduates. UNCW has been doing a bit of growing itself, surpassing 18,000 students this academic year and leading the UNC System in enrollment growth over the past 10 years. Graduate students have been particularly strong, increasing 94% over the past 5 years. This provides a bit of relief for these companies that will have hundreds if not thousands of jobs to fill in the near future.
Enrollment is not the only growth for UNCW tied to this industry. The university is expanding its science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs, adding a new Pharmaceutical Chemistry PhD program for careers in drug discovery and development, partnering with North Carolina State University (NCSU) to deliver a National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps Program, and continuing a trend of strong hires including Dr. Kenneth M. Halanych to lead the Center for Marine Science and Dr. R. Thomas Williamson to oversee Pharmaceutical Chemistry, adding to the impressive researchers already in place.
These additions complement strong assets including the MARBIONC facility that drives technology commercialization through synergistic relationships with numerous university, commercial, and government entities. New MARBIONC tenant Portrett Pharmaceuticals is leveraging this collaborative model, with more partnerships on the near horizon.
Leading the charge to foster biotechnology growth in our region is the North Carolina Biotechnology Center Southeastern Office in Wilmington. After the Southeastern Office successfully launched the NC BIONEER Venture Challenge in Wilmington in 2020, NC Biotech is now rolling out the challenge across North Carolina, with challenges in each of its five regions and a new statewide challenge round, providing an array of benefits including monetary awards, mentoring, entrepreneurial pitch opportunities, and other advantages to early-stage Biotechnology entrepreneurs. NC BIONEER expands on NC Biotech’s leadership of life science economic development for North Carolina, adding to robust offerings in innovation, funding, events, education, economic development, and more.
UNCW and NC Biotech have recently joined other statewide partners in an ambitious Biotechnology-focused proposal competing in the Economic Development Agency’s $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge aimed at providing transformational investments to develop and strengthen regional industry clusters while embracing equitable economic growth, creating jobs, and enhancing sustainable competitiveness.
The successful $500k Phase 1 submission titled “Accelerating Life Science Manufacturing to Create Economic Resilience and Promote Equity in Distressed North Carolina Communities”, focused on the biomanufacturing workforce, awarded the team as one of sixty nation-wide finalists and qualified them to compete in Phase 2 with awards upwards of $25 - $100 million. If successful, the region will directly benefit through a Southeastern Biopharmaceutical Manufacturing Workforce Training and Innovation Center.
The project will help develop the talent pipeline to support the growing biopharmaceutical industrial manufacturing cluster in southeastern NC with more geographically and racially diverse, highly skilled professionals.
Biotechnology is a strong economic engine in Southeastern North Carolina and will continue to be a sector of focus, investment, collaboration, and impact driving significant growth in our region for many years to come.