NCBiotech: 40 years of servant leadership

It’s spring, 2024. A season of hope for everyone from gardeners to college applicants. And it’s also harvest time for North Carolina’s life sciences ecosystem.

It’s time to kick off a year of celebration for the state’s prescient and steadfast 40-year investment in life sciences growth and development via the North Carolina Biotechnology Center (NCBiotech).

NCBiotech was established in 1984, at the cusp of the newly evolving buzz over this amorphous commercial opportunity called biotechnology. It was the world’s first state-funded independent nonprofit economic development organization tasked with creating a new life sciences paradigm.

It’s remarkable that this Southern state – at one time the second poorest in the nation – could bootstrap itself so remarkably with new technologies powered in great measure by its excellent universities.

The state’s civic and business leaders agreed North Carolina needed to reinvent its weakening legacy industries of tobacco, furniture and textiles for any hope of redemption. The result is a new state enjoying global life sciences leadership. It even brings new definitions and applications to those legacy industries.

As the NCBiotech board chair, I am enjoying an awesome swirl this year with the thousands of wonderful people who have contributed to our state’s “unlikely” life sciences successes. I am privileged to be supported by a highly talented and diverse team of directors who encourage and enable the similarly unique excellence of the NCBiotech staff.  And I am gratified, in a time when finding common ground in politics is not always easy, that NCBiotech has strong, bipartisan support from the State’s legislative and executive branch leaders.

Santo Costa, NCBiotech board chair

I submit that this transformation is also directly linked to the “servant leadership” of the NCBiotech founders. And to the resulting servant leadership of their progeny – the institutions and people honing, defining and relying upon NCBiotech over these amazing 40 years.

I’ve written before about the concept of “servant leadership” and its power to produce greatness. Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990), founder in 1964 of the Center for Applied Ethics at Seton Hall University, first introduced the concept of “servant” leadership in a 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” That launched a major servant-leadership movement that I, and many others, embrace to this day.

Greenleaf’s landmark 1977 book, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, not only defines the concept further but also describes the status each of us can reach by following his principles. It’s still available in print and digital formats.

I’ve seen it manifest in the business and civic leaders and even athletic coaches I admire most, as they wield what Greenleaf coined “legitimate power” emanating from the wisdom and the moral authority of their leadership. It involves a mix of honest humility, an ability to see, hear and value a wide range of individuals and institutions, and a commitment to achieve common good. Actions that are congruous, selfless, inherently positive. Servant leaders exude trustworthiness – prolonged, understated reliability and fairness. Paying thoughtful attention to others doesn’t mean abandoning one’s own knowledge and convictions. Wise servant leaders understand that if they walk side by side, they’ll make progress together.

Fortunately, NCBiotech has embodied the best attributes of servant leadership, building bridges and partnerships and collaborations in every corner of North Carolina and in academic and commercial centers around the world.

North Carolina life sciences people respect and admire their peers in hubs as far-flung as Massachusetts and California and Ireland and Washington and Hyderabad and Philly. Yet they’ve earned their own unique identity.

As a result, North Carolina enjoys global recognition in pharmaceutical manufacturing, gene and cell therapies, regenerative medicine, and advanced agricultural technologies. The list goes on as North Carolina developed one of the world’s most effective community college and workforce training systems, to put specially trained and/or retrained people into highly rewarding life sciences occupations. Not just in the Research Triangle area, but statewide. And we continue to find success with new ways to bring in underserved communities and the resulting richness of blended ideas.

NCBiotech has often welcomed visits by life sciences company executives and economic development groups from throughout the United States and the world. Understandably, they all want the recipe for our “secret sauce” so they can replicate our success when they return home. I am told that some have spent billions of dollars in attempts to bootstrap the kind of ecosystem that North Carolina has nurtured.

Of course, we deeply appreciate the continued support from the state’s legislature, and to have this opportunity to recognize the dedicated, highly successful team at NCBiotech.

Santo J. Costa is board chair of NCBiotech and an attorney with Smith Anderson.

Santo Costa, NCBiotech board chair
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