History of Biotechnology in North Carolina
The handwriting was on the wall in the early 1980s.
Three of North Carolina’s largest traditional industries – tobacco, textiles and furniture – were declining as they were offshored to countries with cheaper labor. The state needed a new industry to help replace those lost jobs.
North Carolina’s leaders realized that genetic engineering and other new technologies coming out of bioscience research labs had enormous potential. They also knew that North Carolina’s largest industries – especially agriculture and medicine – were the very ones that the technology could transform.
A New Industry for North Carolina
North Carolina also had the necessary resources to develop biotechnology, including leading research universities, four medical schools, a large research park, a progressive business climate and a capable workforce. The state needed a spark to ignite that potential.
That ignition came in 1984 when the legislative and executive branches, with encouragement from academic and business leaders, established the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park. The independent, non-profit corporation became the nation's first state-sponsored initiative in biotechnology development.
The Biotech Center’s mission was to help North Carolina gain long-term job creation and other economic benefits by catalyzing the development and commercialization of biotechnology.
Supported by a $6.5 million annual appropriation from the General Assembly, the Center began hiring staff and developing programs to meet five goals:
- Strengthen the research capabilities of the state's universities
- Encourage collaborations among government, industry and academia
- Aid biotechnology business development
- Educate and inform the public about the science, applications and issues of biotechnology
- Establish North Carolina as a national and international site for biotechnology development.
Vital to its strategy was the Center’s non-profit status, which gave the organization the independence and flexibility to be a neutral and trusted partner – the Switzerland of biotechnology development. The Center was well positioned to engage universities, companies, venture capitalists, government agencies, non-profit organizations, secondary schools and others for mutually beneficial collaborations that would advance biotechnology research, education and business.
A deliberate decision was also made to have the Center not undertake laboratory research. It was deemed a better use of limited state resources to build upon, rather than duplicate, the research capabilities of the state's universities and companies.
The Center concentrated first on increasing the bioscience research capacities of the state’s universities as a foundation for long-term commercial development. Universities were the wellspring of new ideas and technologies.
The Center created grant programs to jump-start new research projects, support the recruitment of world-class research faculty and purchase major lab equipment that could be used by multiple researchers.
These programs would eventually bring dramatic returns on investment by supporting new ideas, developing new technologies and products, sparking new companies, bringing new research talent and equipment to the state,and triggering follow-on funding from other sources.
To stimulate the creation and growth of new biotech companies, the Center worked with universities to encourage company spinouts by licensing their ideas and technologies to entrepreneurs.
To sustain those new enterprises, which had difficulty obtaining conventional bank financing, the Center created various company loan programs. The loans provided early stage funding that helped startups develop and test new products, critical to positioning the companies for follow-on funding from other sources such as federal granting agencies and private investors.
The state had few venture capital firms, especially any willing to invest in biotech startups. These ventures typically had unproven products, long and expensive development timelines, and high regulatory hurdles. A pair of entrepreneurs, Dennis Dougherty and Roy Rodwell, recognized this problem as an opportunity, and in 1984 they established Intersouth Partners in Durham to invest in small technology-based companies. Intersouth would fund dozens of life science companies over the next 35 years while lighting the way for dozens of other venture capital firms to come into the state.
As the Biotech Center found its footing, it selected a new president and CEO in late 1987 to succeed the first president, Richard Patterson, and interim president Roy Morse. Charles E. Hamner Jr., Ph.D., D.V.M., brought a mix of scientific, academic and business experience to the job in February 1988. He had been associate vice president for health affairs and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Virginia Medical Center, and was previously head of R&D at A.H. Robins Co., a pharmaceutical company in Richmond, Va.
“Biotechnology is a very young industry with potential for explosive growth in the coming decade and into the next century,” Hamner said at the time. “Molecular biology and genetics offer enormously improved productivity and protection for plants, animals and people. The Biotechnology Center offers a direct way to foster these improvements by continuing to enhance the state’s outstanding research universities and strongly developing biotechnology industry.”
The same year he took office, the Center published its first directory of biotechnology-related companies, listing 83 company sites in the state that collectively employed about 1,300 people. The numbers were a start, but they would pale in comparison to what would come in the Hamner era.
About 20 of the state’s early biotechnology companies were involved in plant and animal agriculture – no surprise given that agriculture was, and is, the state’s largest and most pervasive industry. Those companies were quick to adopt the new scientific tools of biotechnology and began developing commercial products for crop protection and animal health.
In 1986 Ciba-Geigy Corp. conducted the state’s first field trial of a genetically engineered crop plant, tobacco that had been altered to tolerate a commonly used agricultural herbicide. To help demystify the technology, the Center documented the Franklin County trial in a video, Biotechnology: Breaking New Ground.
“It will make people proud that this cutting-edge science is going on in our state,” said Mary-Dell Chilton, Ph.D., executive director of biotechnology at Ciba-Geigy in Research Triangle Park.
Anticipating a rush of more ag biotech field trials, the Center in 1988 created an advisory body to help North Carolina develop a framework for regulating trials.
The 28-member Advisory Committee on Biotechnology consisted of university scientists, company executives, farmers, lawyers, environmental groups, state agencies, ag groups and others. After 10 months of study and discussion, the committee drafted consensus legislation to regulate the sale, use and outdoor release of genetically altered plants, microbes, fungi and insects. The General Assembly would vote on the bill in 1989.
North Carolina gained global attention in the mid-1980s for the development of AZT, the first effective drug to treat or prevent HIV/AIDS, a growing health scourge.
Burroughs Wellcome of Research Triangle Park filed for a patent on AZT in 1985, and two years later the drug was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use against HIV, AIDS and AIDS Related Complex.
AZT and other anti-retroviral therapies that came later would transform AIDS from an automatic death sentence to a manageable chronic illness.
In the early 1990s about 70 companies in North Carolina were involved in the life sciences and another 100 supporting companies provided goods and services to them. In all, these companies employed about 17,500 people in the state.
Importantly, the industry was growing at a 10% annual clip.
Many of the companies were large, multinational corporations with research or production operations in the state, and they began to expand as they employed the new tools and techniques of biotechnology. Other companies began relocating to the state, citing a variety of reasons: proximity to universities, access to talent, lower operational costs, a supportive business environment, a low cost of living, and a high quality of life.
New, home-grown companies, often spun out of North Carolina universities, began to join the base of large companies. The Center had seed-funded 35 of them with $3.8 million in loans, helping the companies create about 1,000 new jobs and bring about $200 million in investments into the state.
Two of the companies – Embrex and Sphinx Pharmaceuticals – would go on to prove the great value of the Center’s early financial support.
Embrex, a poultry vaccine company, was founded in 1985 in Durham with technology expertise from North Carolina State University. Supported with more than $260,000 in loans from the Center, the company went on to raise $15 million in seed capital and then $16.7 million in an initial public offering (IPO) of stock in 1991.
Embrex built a vaccine-production facility in Maxton before being acquired by Pfizer Animal Health for $155 million. Today the company is owned by Huvepharma, an animal-health company based in Bulgaria.
Sphinx Pharmaceuticals of Durham was spun out of a Duke University biochemistry lab in 1987 with the support of $403,416 in Biotech Center loans. The company attracted $16 million in venture capital and in 1991 raised $75 million in an IPO – at the time the largest IPO in state history.
Three years later Sphinx was acquired by pharmaceutical titan Eli Lilly & Co. for $76 million, and Lilly built a new, $40 million drug research center in Research Triangle Park that created more than 100 high-paying jobs.
“Sphinx is a prime example of what the biotechnology initiative can do in North Carolina,” said Charles Hamner, the Center’s president and CEO at the time.
The Biotech Center was outgrowing its leased office space in Research Triangle Park and also lacked facilities for one of its important roles: bringing together the many different players in biotech development – academics, company executives, government officials, investors, educators and others with a stake in the industry.
The Center began planning for a permanent headquarters with conference facilities, and it secured funding from state and federal appropriations and contributions from Glaxo, and Ciba-Geigy, for a $5.2 million building.
With 300 guests in attendance, the Center broke ground in November 1990 for a two-story, 47,000-square-foot building that would include a 170-seat auditorium, a 19,000-square-foot conference center and a 2,000-square-foot library.
“This is an historic day commemorating a vital and unique center, unique in the United States, and one which will fulfill the promises of biomedical research that we hold as we move into the 21st century,” said Charles Sanders, M.D., chief executive officer of Glaxo at the time.
In April 1992 the Center dedicated the newly completed limestone and brick building with 400 guests.
”We have not only a magnificent building to celebrate but an array of accomplishments over a decade that have put us in the forefront . . . of biotechnology centers of the world,” said Stuart Bondurant, M.D., then chairman of the Biotech Center’s board and dean of the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The conference center quickly became a popular gathering place for the life science community and other clients. About 14,000 people attended meetings and events at the conference center in its first year as the state’s biotech community grew, and eventually the facility would host 35,000 people per year. Community members gathered for networking, scientific exchange, business meetings and economic development interactions, many of them involving the Biotech Center.
Forming collaborations, bringing people together and encouraging new initiatives were becoming hallmarks of the Biotech Center. In 1992 it did all three when it organized a 21-member steering committee to write a proposal to host the annual meeting of the Association of Biotechnology Companies (ABC), one of two international industry trade groups at the time.
The proposal was accepted, and in April 1993 North Carolina gained international exposure for its growing biotechnology hub when it hosted the seventh annual meeting of the ABC. The conference, held in Research Triangle Park, drew 1,300 participants from 300 companies and organizations.
“The combination of an ideal location and a well-organized local support group convinced the ABC board to bring the annual meeting to North Carolina,” said Forrest Anthony, president of ABC.
It was the ABC’s last meeting because the organization merged in 1993 with another trade group, the Industrial Biotechnology Association, to become BIO, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (now known as the Biotechnology Innovation Organization). BIO became the world’s largest biotech trade association with its last annual meeting in 2019 attracting more than 16,000 people from 67 countries.
Another initiative led by the Biotech Center bore fruit in 1989 when the state’s General Assembly passed the Genetically Engineered Organisms Act to regulate the sale, use and outdoor release of genetically altered plants, microbes, fungi or insects.
The legislation was developed by a 28-member Advisory Committee on Biotechnology convened by the Biotech Center. Ag biotech executives and environmentalists alike hailed the Act for its ability to protect the public interest while allowing the industry to proceed with research and product development in a science-based regulatory framework that dovetailed with federal regulations.
“Clear, consistent regulations, whether federal or state, are essential to continued economic development,” said Charles Hamner, the Center’s president and CEO.
North Carolina also paved the way for the use of another emerging technology: DNA fingerprinting, a tool for forensics, law enforcement, paternity testing and other applications.
In 1990 the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that DNA fingerprinting results were generally admissible as evidence in criminal trials.
“Even though it’s new, it’s a powerful tool to clear the innocent and convict the guilty,” said Michael Terretti, a vice president at Genetic Design of Greensboro, which performed forensic DNA tests.
The technology was one of many yet to come that would transform industries, employment, and daily life in the state.
- Glaxo dedicated a 10-building, $350 million research center in Research Triangle Park and expanded a drug-manufacturing plant in Zebulon.
- Praxis Biologics built a new vaccine-production plant in Sanford and announced it would add a new antibiotic-manufacturing facility at the site.
- Takeda Chemical Products USA built a new plant in Wilmington with fermentation facilities for production of vitamin C products.
- Organon Teknika dedicated its new U.S. headquarters, manufacturing and research campus in Durham – a six-building, $36 million, 53-acre complex.
- Ciba-Geigy completed a $12 million expansion that doubled the size of its Agricultural Biotechnology Research Center in Research Triangle Park.
- Roche Biomedical Labs announced plans to locate a new 80,000-square-foot R&D facility in Durham.
- KabiVitrum began operations in expanded facilities in Clayton.
- BASF moved its Agricultural Products Group headquarters to Research Triangle Park from New Jersey.
- Hoechst Celanese relocated its Specialty Chemicals Group headquarters from Virginia to Charlotte.
- Ajinomoto dedicated a $9 million expansion of its amino acid production plant in Raleigh.
- Cutter Biological in Clayton began a $16 million plant renovation and expansion.
- American Sterilizer completed construction of a $4.7 million headquarters in Apex.
- Novo Nordisk Biochem announced a $100 million expansion of its industrial enzyme production facility in Franklinton.
In the mid-1990s the slow, difficult and expensive work of biotech research and development had begun to pay off with commercial products. By 1998 at least 54 biological therapeutics and vaccines were on the market, and more than 150 more were in late-stage clinical trials.
“After years of research and development, the biopharmaceutical industry is maturing into the manufacturing stage,” said Charles Hamner, D.V.M., then president and CEO of the Biotech Center. “And that’s where we’re going to see phenomenal growth in terms of jobs, revenues and capital investments.”
Richard Hawkins, BioPro’s founder and chairman, said the company chose North Carolina over four other states – Texas, Massachusetts, Alabama and California – because “Dr. Charles Hamner and his colleagues at the N.C. Biotechnology Center – with strong support of the legislature – have created the finest environment for the nurturing and development of biotechnology companies in the world today. There’s no question about it.”
“We’re not just celebrating the creation of a new business in North Carolina,”
said Randy Thurman, president and CEO of Corning Life Sciences. “I believe
we are standing here at day one of what will be a major new global industry.”
Today the facility operates as Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies and is in the midst of a $90M expansion.
As if on cue, companies began ramping up their biomanufacturing capacity with new or expanded plants:
- Massachusetts-based Biogen built its first dedicated biomanufacturing plant, a $60 million facility in Research Triangle Park.
- Novo Nordisk A/S dedicated a $100 million insulin-production facility in Clayton.
- Mallinckrodt broke ground for a $30 million veterinary biologicals production plant in Raleigh.
- Eisai built a $40 million drug-manufacturing plant in Research Triangle Park.
- Wyeth Lederle Vaccines and Pediatrics added a new pneumococcal vaccine manufacturing facility in Sanford.
- Novo Nordisk Biochem expanded its production plant for industrial enzymes in Franklinton.
- Corning Life Sciences and BioPro teamed up to build a $57 million plant in Research Triangle Park for the contract manufacture of biological therapies for other companies.
Another industry sector hit its stride in the mid-1990s: contract research organizations, or CROs. These companies found a ready market for helping pharmaceutical and biotech companies expedite drug development, manage clinical trials and perform other work cheaper, better and faster.
Two of the industry’s earliest entrants were Quintiles Transnational (today known as IQVIA), started in 1982 by Dennis Gillings, a former biostatistics professor at UNC Chapel Hill, and Pharmaceutical Product Development (PPD), formed in 1986 in Wilmington by Fred Eshelman, Pharm.D., a UNC graduate and former Glaxo executive.
In March 1994 Quintiles raised $35.5 million in an Initial Public Offering (IPO) of stock in 1994, and PPD raised $37 million in an IPO two years later. Both companies would grow into large multinational corporations at the top of their industry.
Other CROs, citing a skilled labor pool and proximity to client companies, were formed or expanded in the mid-1990s. Among them: ClinTrials Research, Parexel International, Applied Analytical Industries, Magellan Labs, Resource/Solutions and Lineberry Research Associates.
“You should be proud of what’s going on here in North Carolina,” Ken Lee, head of Ernst & Young’s U.S. Life Sciences Practice, told the 1997 annual meeting of NCBIO. “You’ve become the world headquarters of the CRO industry.”
By 1998 the Biotech Center listed 54 CROs with headquarters or operations in the state. Of the world’s 10 largest CROs, four of them were headquartered in North Carolina and two more had major facilities here.
More would emerge as the industry was expected to double revenues in only a few years.
In 1995 Glaxo merged with Burroughs Wellcome to form Glaxo Wellcome. Also that year, Glaxo Wellcome acquired California-based Affymax, a leader in the field of combinatorial chemistry. Glaxo Wellcome would soon become the world's third-largest pharmaceutical company by revenues.
The company, today known as GlaxoSmithKline, became a dominant force in the Research Triangle region, creating high-paying jobs and contributing substantially to community causes. It also had a profound impact on the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
A 2014 study at UNC-Chapel Hill identified 144 North Carolina companies that were created by former employees of GlaxoSmithKline and its forerunners, Glaxo Wellcome and Burroughs Wellcome.
When GlaxoSmithKline downsized its Triangle workforce in 2014, eliminating 900 jobs, the Biotech Center collaborated with the company to sponsor a seminar, “Life Beyond GSK: Entrepreneurial Career Options,” to encourage laid-off employees to remain in the area and make new opportunities for themselves. Some 300 men and women heard advice from former GSK employees who had done that successfully.
In the summer of 1994 about a dozen of the state’s biotech executives met to discuss the need to monitor and influence state and federal legislation affecting their growing industry. They formed NCBIO, a statewide affiliate of the international BIO organization.
Today the organization supports workforce development, promotes university research and technology transfer and supports capitalization and commercialization of products, often in close collaboration with the Biotech Center. NCBIO also provides members with opportunities to network, collaborate and save money.
At the national level, NCBIO works with BIO, AdvaMed, PhRMA and MDMA to support appropriate federal policies and to keep members of North Carolina's congressional delegation informed about the needs and priorities of the state’s life science community.
In 1996 NCBIO published a report, “The Shortage of Early Stage Capital for Emerging High-Growth Companies in North Carolina,” noting that only $200 million in early stage venture capital was under management in North Carolina.
The state needed at least twice that amount, or opportunities would be lost, the report said.
A report by the Council for Entrepreneurial Development concurred, citing a lack of in-state venture capital as the single greatest obstacle to the industry’s growth.
The state’s General Assembly acknowledged the weakness by appropriating $10 million to the Biotech Center for a new multi-partner investment fund to finance new and expanding bioscience companies in the state.
The Center leveraged the funds with $20 million in other investments, creating a $30 million Bioscience Investment Fund. Investors included the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Quintiles Transnational, Tomen America and three North Carolina banks – Bank of America, BB&T and Wachovia – invested in the Fund.
The Center chose Eno River Capital of Durham to manage the Fund, which planned to invest in about 20 early stage companies over the next decade.
In 1994 Martin Rodbell, scientific director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park and an adjunct professor at Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Rodbell, a biochemist and molecular endocrinologist, shared the award with Alfred Gilman for their discovery of G-proteins and the role of these proteins in signal transduction in cells.
By 1998 North Carolina had over 100 biotech companies, 54 CROs and 133 supporting companies, collectively employing 20,000 people with a payroll of $770 million. Product sales reached $1 billion.
But the best was yet to come, projected Charles Hamner.
Over the next 20 years the industry would grow 15-fold, employing as many as 100,000 North Carolinians and reaching up to $15 billion in sales statewide, he said.
His optimism was shared by Ernst & Young’s Ken Lee, who told participants at Biotech ’96, “I’m extremely bullish about biotech here. This is not a platitude; there’s an awful lot happening here. If you worked the circuit I work and you went to all of the top and emerging regions for biotechnology economic development in this country, you would be even more impressed with what you see here.”
Hamner Era Ends but Life Sciences Continue to Deliver for North Carolina
Charles Hamner, the Center’s longest-serving president (1988-2002), was fond of saying that biotech was an overnight success in North Carolina, followed by the kicker, “20 years in the making.”
There was truth in both of those contradictory statements.
It did appear as if the state’s life science base had blossomed spontaneously, but decades of intentional, strategic work and state investments accelerated its growth.
Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of BIO, the industry’s international trade association, said on a visit to North Carolina that whereas wealthy Boston’s and California’s large biotech industries “grew by spontaneous combustion,” North Carolina’s resulted from “a conscious decision to bring biotechnology before it was here.”
Under Hamner’s leadership, the Biotech Center had catalyzed the sector’s growth with strategic planning, public-private partnerships, university grants, company loans, education programs, networking events and other initiatives. When he retired in 2002, after 14 years at the helm, he left an organization and a life science community at the top of their games.
North Carolina was among the top five states in the life sciences, with more than 150 companies and 75 contract research and testing companies employing more than 32,000 people and generating combined annual revenues of more than $8 billion.
“The timing is right,” Hamner said of his decision to retire. “After 14 years of productive partnership with so many wonderful people in North Carolina, a refreshment of management is needed as we enter the new era of genomics, bioinformatics and proteomics.”
The Center handed the reins to his successor, Leslie Alexandre, Ph.D., a health care professional with public and private experience in national health policy, government affairs, communications, marketing and business development.
In 2003, at the governor’s request, the Center led the development of a statewide strategic plan for biotech development, “New Jobs Across North Carolina.” The Center convened more than 120 leaders from throughout the state to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in the industry.
The resulting plan aspired for North Carolina to have 48,000 biotech-related jobs by 2013 and 125,000 job by 2023. It presented 54 recommendations for strengthening the industry, remaining globally competitive and harvesting high-paying jobs.
The plan’s three most immediate priorities were:
Retention, expansion and attraction of biomanufacturing companies
Creation and attraction of biotech startup companies
Development of biotechnology throughout the state
Much of the state’s biotech activity to date had been clustered in the Research Triangle region, home to three major research universities, Research Triangle Park and state government. The Biotech Center began efforts to spread the economic and societal benefits of the life sciences to all corners of the state, based on local strengths and resources.
The Center began opening five regional offices, each with one or two staff members, to accelerate life science development. The first to open was the Piedmont Triad Office in Winston-Salem, serving the 12-county region anchored by Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point.
The Piedmont Triad region already had about 50 life science companies, several universities and an expanding technology campus – Piedmont Triad Research Park – as a foundation for growth. Wake Forest University contributed $200,000 to the office’s establishment and became a valuable partner in its work.
Four other regional offices followed: a Western Office in Asheville, an Eastern Office in Greenville, a Southeastern Office in Wilmington and a Greater Charlotte Office in Charlotte. The regional offices established advisory committees of local leaders to guide their development strategies, partnerships and activities.
In short order, the Piedmont Triad advisory committee proposed 21 recommendations for strengthening the life sciences in the region. It also began planning an inaugural Triad BioNight awards ceremony and networking event that would grow over the years to attract 300 participants from across the state.
The chairman of the advisory committee for Western North Carolina, Jack Cecil, president of Biltmore Farms, said that his region had missed out on the information technology bonanza of the 1990s but didn’t want it to be left out of the life science boom.
“Biotechnology probably is not the panacea for Western North Carolina, but it is an opportunity,” he said.
In 2002 the Center concluded an eight-year program to strengthen the biotechnology programs of North Carolina’s historically minority universities: Elizabeth City State, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State, North Carolina Central, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Fayetteville State and Winston-Salem State. The goal was to help these traditionally under-funded universities prepare students for graduate studies and careers in the life sciences
With about $10 million in special appropriations from the General Assembly, the Center helped the six universities plan programs, hire and train faculty, equip labs, develop curricula and recruit students.
During the initiative the number of faculty members teaching bioscience courses grew from six to 68. Student enrollment in bioscience courses tripled to more than 3,000, and the number of students majoring in biological sciences increased from about 150 students to more than 850.
Several of the state’s biotech companies made headlines in the period with major developments.
Glaxo Wellcome merged with SmithKlineBeecham to form GlaxoSmithKline
Biogen began building a second plant at its biomanufacturing campus in Research Triangle Park
Two home-grown biotech companies, Inspire Pharmaceuticals of Durham and Pozen of Chapel Hill, went public, raising $141 million in initial public offerings of stock
Covance Biotechnology Services, operator of a contract biomanufacturing plant in Research Triangle Park, was acquired by Diosynth, a pharmaceutical business unit of Akzo Nobel, for about $190 million
Triangle Pharmaceuticals of Durham was acquired by Gilead Sciences for $464 million
From the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s earliest years onward, educating the next generation of citizens about the technology and preparing them for jobs in in the field was a constant priority.
Since 1987 the Biotech Center’s Education and Training Program had offered summer biotech workshops to more than 1,700 middle and high school teachers in all of North Carolina’s 100 counties, preparing them to teach about biotech. It supported those teachers in the classroom with biotech lesson plans, videos, supplies and loaned equipment for lab activities.
In turn, those teachers reached about 100,000 students a year with lessons about the science, applications and issues of biotechnology, along with career information. Many of those students went on to study biotech-related fields at the state’s community colleges and universities and then pursue jobs and careers in the industry.
The program also awarded hundreds of grants totaling $7 million to promote biotech teaching and training at schools, community colleges and universities.
With its experience and expertise, the program was well suited to address a growing need for specialized workers in the early 2000s.
As more biotech products gained regulatory approval and came to market, companies began building and expanding production capacity at a feverish pace to manufacture those products. The industry needed an ever-larger supply of workers skilled in biomanufacturing, the production of proteins and other biological molecules using living cells.
Not having enough trained workers would be a rate-limiting factor in the industry’s growth, said Sam Taylor, head of NCBIO, the state’s industry association. “We believe that the biomanufacturing industry has enormous potential to bring jobs to all regions of North Carolina as biotechnology moves from a research base to a manufacturing base.”
At the industry’s request, the Education and Training Program surveyed the state’s biotech companies to determine how many biomanufacturing workers they would need and the skillsets those employees should have. The results were published in a seminal report, “Window on the Workplace,” which projected the industry would need 2,000 to 3,000 new employees every year for the foreseeable future.
The report’s conclusions rang bells at Golden LEAF, the nonprofit organization that invests half of the state’s proceeds from tobacco industry litigation in economic development projects to benefit rural areas. Golden LEAF’s staff and board had learned that biomanufacturing jobs – unlike most R&D jobs – could be created in rural areas across the state. Additionally, the jobs paid well above the state average for other manufacturing jobs, and they could be filled by high school, community college or university graduates who were willing to receive specialized training.
Golden LEAF responded by investing $69 million in a new workforce training initiative to prepare workers for the growing sector, and NCBIO pledged up to $4.5 million from its member companies.
Industry, universities, community colleges and the Biotech Center formed a consortium, today called NC BioImpact, that built a three-pronged program:
The Golden LEAF Biotechnology Training and Education Center, located at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, has 87,500 square feet of facilities for hands-on training in current Good Manufacturing Practices using industry-standard equipment.
The Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE) at N.C. Central University in Durham, has 65,000 square feet of research laboratories and classrooms for research, teaching and training in biotechnology and biomanufacturing.
BioNetwork, run by the North Carolina Community College System, offers courses, degree programs and BioWork certificate for students to become process technician for a biotechnology, pharmaceutical or chemical manufacturing company. It also feeds students into the BTEC and BRITE programs for additional training.
“NC BioImpact is providing a constant flow of educated workers at all levels, which gives North Carolina a significant competitive advantage,” said NCBIO’s Taylor. “This effort not only provides for entry-level employees, but also strengthens training for incumbent workers at companies already here.”
The workforce training initiative helped ensure that “young people were able to stay in the state and have good-paying jobs,” recalled Charles Hamner, the Biotech Center’s former president. “It fed on itself because as soon as other companies found out we had a trained workforce here, they started coming here and the recruiting became much easier than it was in the early days.”
The availability of a trained workforce helped spur the recruitment and expansion of several biomanufacturing plants that brought billions in new investment and thousands of new jobs across the state.
Novartis announced it would invest $267 million in a new vaccine plant in Holly Springs.
“North Carolina’s ‘ace’ was its ability to provide an instantaneous workforce,” said Joerg Reinhardt, CEO, Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics.
Today the plant is owned by Seqirus and is in the midst of a $140 million expansion that will double the plant’s capacity to 40 million doses of flu vaccine annually. The expansion, when completed in April 2020, will give Seqirus 475,000 square feet of space – about the size of eight football fields – and nearly 700 employees.
Merck also announced it would build a $300 million vaccine-manufacturing plant in Durham. Since breaking ground in 2004 the company has invested about $1.6 billion in the campus and hired hundreds while also expanding its facilities in Wilson.
“The strong support of the state is critical for the success of businesses such as ours,” said Sanat Chattopadhyay, the company’s executive vice president and president of its manufacturing division.
Meanwhile, KBI BioPharma, a startup contract biomanufacturer, built a production plant in Durham with the help of a $1 million loan from the Biotech Center.
“We are choosing North Carolina over six other states because of its supporting infrastructure for the biosciences, including the Biotechnology Center, excellent research universities and community colleges, specialized construction and engineering companies, available workers, and extensive workforce training programs, in addition to its high quality of life,” said the company’s founder, Anthony Laughrey. “None of the other six measured up when all of these factors were considered.”
Other companies with new or expanded biomanufacturing plants in the period included Embrex, United Therapeutics, Metrics, Eisai, Wyeth Vaccines, Biolex Therapeutics, Talecris Biotherapeutics, Novo Nordisk Pharmaceutical Industries and GlaxoSmithKline.
In 2005 David Murdock, owner of Dole Food Co., announced plans for a $1.5 billion, 350-acre North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis focused on health, food and nutrition.
The state’s General Assembly invested in the project, and universities, businesses, community colleges and other entities began signing on for space on the campus, formerly the site of a massive textile mill. Today eight universities, a dozen companies and two health systems operate on the campus, which has built over 1 million square feet of lab, office and medical space.
Scientist Oliver Smithies, who was brought to UNC in 1987 with the support of a $350,000 Biotech Center faculty-recruitment grant, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology, Medicine or Chemistry in 2007 for his genetics research.
Smithies was honored for his pioneering work in developing new DNA techniques for altering animal genomes, leading to gene targeting and “knockout” mice, important tools for understanding genetic diseases and developing new treatments for those diseases.
Smithies was one of 56 world-class scientists recruited to North Carolina universities with Biotech Center grants totaling nearly $10 million. Those researchers had brought in $363 million in research funding from other sources as of 2007 and had established at least 19 bioscience companies based on their work.
In 2007, Norris Tolson was appointed president and CEO of the Biotech Center, succeeding Leslie Alexandre, who resigned after four years. Tolson, a Biotech Center board member, brought decades of corporate and government experience to the role.
At the time, the state’s life science community was gaining greater national and international prominence for its steady ascent, and that trajectory continued.
North Carolina surpassed Maryland to become the nation’s third leading state for biotechnology, trailing only California and Massachusetts, according to Ernst & Young.
Another report by the Milken Institute of America’s Biotech and Life Science Clusters showed that the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill region ranked third in the country’s top metro areas in biotech.
According to the Biotech Center, jobs in the state’s life science cluster increased 29 percent from 2001 to 2008, nearly twice the national bioscience sector growth rate and more than five times that of North Carolina’s total private sector. With statewide biotechnology industry-related employment of 226,000, an annual payroll of $12.7 billion and an economic impact of $64 billion, the life science industry had become central to North Carolina’s overall economy.
Not even the largest economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s could shut down North Carolina’s life science juggernaut.
When the U.S. housing bubble burst and the global financial crisis flared, spurring a major economic downturn from 2007 to 2009, the life sciences emerged as one of the few bright spots in North Carolina’s economy.
As unemployment in the state reached record high levels, biotech employment grew.
The sector remained a large generator of income and taxes statewide, according to a study by the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice. The report showed North Carolina's life science jobs grew by 30.9% between 2000 and 2012, compared with a mere 1% overall private sector growth in the state during the same time span. And those jobs paid an average $81,000 a year.
According to the Battelle study, life science companies and institutions generated $73 billion in economic activity for the state, a jump of 60% since the recession hit in 2008, and accounted for 228,259 direct and indirect jobs – 5% of all employment in the state.
North Carolina’s life science future “has never been brighter,” Battelle said in the report. “North Carolina has a realistic ‘line of sight’ to specific growth opportunities that build upon its industry strengths and research assets and allow North Carolina to differentiate itself and compete on a national and global scale.”
The Battelle analysts cited six areas of technology strength in the state:
- Crop genetic engineering
- Outsourced drug development
- Advanced wound healing, surgical devices and regenerative medicine
- Personalized medicine and diagnostics
- Contract manufacturing
- Health informatics
“The reason we are ahead of the curve is because . . . we’ve invested in the biotech industry and it’s paying dividends,” Norris Tolson, the Biotech Center’s president and CEO, said in a 2010 interview with Business Leader magazine.
That same year, Art Pappas, founder and managing partner of Pappas Ventures, a Durham-based venture capital firm, explained to the News and Observer of Raleigh why biotech was critical to the state’s economy during the recession:
“The life sciences are an engine of job creation with a high ‘multiplier’ rate – they create a lot of jobs indirectly. In addition to elite, Ph.D.-level positions, the life sciences create a range of jobs, including support and manufacturing roles ideal for workers transitioning from declining industries such as furniture or textiles. If North Carolina is to climb out of the recession permanently, it will do so on the shoulders of good-paying, sustainable jobs like these.”
In 2011 the state took steps to ensure it seized the full economic opportunities of biotechnology. At the request of the General Assembly, the Biotechnology Center prepared a strategic plan to accelerate the industry’s growth at a time of stiffening competition from other states.
The Center consulted with more than 50 of the state’s life science executives and identified a lack of early stage and late-stage funding for companies, and a shortage of experienced executives to manage those companies. Its report recommended seven strategies to address these gaps.
The Biotech Center in 2009 created an Ag Biotech Initiative to expand N.C.’s then $74 billion annual agriculture economy to $100 billion by 2020.
The initiative, guided by an advisory council of 16-20 leaders in the agriculture industry and education, connects large companies, entrepreneurial companies and supporting partners statewide. It sponsors Ag Tech Professional Forums, a bi-annual Ag Biotech Summit, a Crop Commercialization Program, an NC Ag Tech Economic Growth Report and a Ponytail Ag Campaign highlighting the contributions women have made to agriculture.
More than 70 ag biotech companies had already put down roots in North Carolina, including international giants such as BASF, Bayer CropScience, DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred, Monsanto, Novozymes and Syngenta. They employed more than 4,000 North Carolinians, and all were growing.
Syngenta Biotechnology in 2011 began building a $71 million state-of-the-art biotechnology research facility in Research Triangle Park. Two years later it announced another $94 million addition to the site, adding 150 more people to its North Carolina workforce of 1,130 employees by 2019.
“This is an extraordinary time of growth for agriculture in North Carolina,” said Michiel van Lookeren Campagne, president of Syngenta Biotechnology.
More good news came in 2012 when BASF announced it would establish its global Plant Science headquarters in the Park, where the Plant Science business division already employed about 200 people. A year later BASF announced a $33 million expansion of its campus there, making it the largest agricultural employer in the Park, with some 275 plant science employees and 675 in crop protection.
Peter Eckes, Ph.D., president of BASF Plant Science, said the Park was fast becoming the Silicon Valley for ag biotech.
Fran Rowland, global brand communications senior manager at BASF Plant Science, said North Carolina’s highly trained and motivated workforce, the Triangle area’s dense concentration of research universities and global agricultural companies, and support from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center were prime reasons BASF continued to invest so heavily here.
“North Carolina offers such great quality of life for our employees,” Rowland said, “and it’s a hub for top talent. We’ve recruited scientists from a number of universities here. That’s why we, Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and others are locating here, and why our business model of collaboration will continue.”
To keep pace with a growing community, the Biotech Center in 2009 began construction of a four-story annex to its headquarters. The additional space provided offices for several job-creation initiatives and also added capacity to the Charles Hamner Conference Center, which was attracting 35,000 guests each year for meetings and events.
In 2012 yet another North Carolina researcher won science’s top prize.
Physician and biochemist Robert Lefkowitz, M.D., a professor at Duke University, shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his studies of G protein-coupled receptors. About half of all medications used today are based on this family of receptors.
A year later, Mary-Dell Chilton, Ph.D., a Syngenta Biotechnology executive and scientist in Research Triangle Park, won the World Food Prize, known as “the Nobel Prize for food and agriculture.” Chilton is considered the “mother of plant biotech” for her pioneering discoveries that led to the first genetically modified plants.
The life science sector witnessed several major buy-outs in the period as global corporations found value in North Carolina companies.
Pfizer purchased Wyeth for $68 billion in 2009, the largest acquisition since Glaxo Wellcome bought SmithKline Beecham for $76 billion in 2000. Wyeth employed about 1,000 people at a manufacturing plant in Sanford, and under Pfizer it would expand in the years to come.
Pfizer also bought Durham-based Icagen, a home-grown start-up company, for $56 million.
Another home-grown company, Inspire Pharmaceuticals of Raleigh, was bought by Merck for $430 million.
Metrics, a privately held contract drug manufacturer in Greenville with 300 employees, was purchased by Mayne Pharma Group for $105 million plus payments of up to $15 million.
BD Biosciences’ Labware business, with 310 manufacturing employees in Durham, was was bought by Corning for $730 million.
Advanced Liquid Logic, a Morrisville company built from Duke University research with Biotech Center support, was bought for “up to $96 million" by San Diego gene-testing powerhouse Illumina.
Talecris Biotherapeutics, based in Research Triangle Park with a major production operation in Clayton, was bought by the Spanish firm Grifols for $3.4 billion less than a year after it had raised $950 million in an initial public offering of stock.
Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics opened a $486 million manufacturing plant in Holly Springs for the production of flu vaccines from cell culture instead of eggs.
Quintiles, the rapidly growing contract research organization, moved into a new headquarters building in Durham and promised to create 1,000 new jobs in North Carolina.
Quintiles was also one of several North Carolina companies that went public during the period. The company raised $947.4 million with an initial public offering (IPO) of stock.
Others on the IPO train included:
Tranzyme Pharma of Research Triangle Park, about $52 million
Heat Biologics of Chapel Hill, about $25 million.
Chimerix of Durham, $117.9 million
LipoScience of Raleigh, $51.8 million.
Two of these companies – Heat Biologics and LipoScience – received early stage loans from the Biotech Center.
North Carolina’s life science sector has delivered the goods.
What began as a handful of life science companies in 1984 has grown to more than 735 today, 35 years later. Those companies, ranging from entrepreneurial startups to multi-national conglomerates, employ more than 66,000 North Carolinians in high-paying jobs, and another 240,000 people work at related companies.
The industry generates more than $83.3 billion in annual economic impact and nearly $2.2 billion in state and local government tax revenues.
North Carolina has developed the nation’s third-largest bioscience community, trailing only California and Massachusetts. And the Research Triangle region is also the third-largest metro area for the life sciences.
The state is a leader in several sectors of the biosciences, according to a 2018 report by TEConomy Partners.
North Carolina is No. 3 in the nation in drugs and pharmaceuticals. The sector generates $56.4 billion in annual economic activity and provides 132,500 jobs.
The state is No. 5 in research, testing and medical labs, a sector that generates $13.7 billion in economic activity and supports more than 75,000 jobs.
North Carolina’s agricultural feedstock and industrial biosciences sector generates $7.3 billion in economic activity and supports 14,000 jobs. More than 170 ag tech companies operate across the state including international giants BASF, Eurofins, Novozymes, Syngenta and Zoetis.
North Carolina has a booming biomanufacturing industry that doubled in size from 2003 to 2018. About 85 companies in the state are involved in biomanufacturing, and they employ more than 9,000 people who make a wide range of high-value products including biopharmaceuticals, animal health products, food ingredients and industrial products such as enzymes.
The state also has the world’s greatest concentration of contract research organizations (CROs), which help biopharmaceutical and pharmaceutical companies test and develop drugs. More than 150 CROs have headquarters or operations in the state, employing over 24,000 people, in addition to tens of thousands around the world. They include global leaders Covance, IQVIA, PPD, Parexel, Chiltern, PRA Health Sciences and Icon Clinical Research.
Recently, North Carolina has gained prominence in another promising sector: gene therapy for treating rare diseases. More than 10% of National Institutes of Health funding for rare-disease research flows through North Carolina, and several companies are making commercial progress in gene therapy development and manufacturing in the state, and are expanding.
The state’s ascension to bioscience prominence has been powered over the last 35 years by its research universities, entrepreneurial talent, large legacy companies, workforce training initiatives, partnerships and sustained state investments.
The nexus of all this has been the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, a nonprofit organization formed by the state in 1984 to catalyze the development of a promising new industry.
“The vision to create the North Carolina Biotech Center, I think, is one of this state’s hallmarks of visionary thinking that has benefitted all of North Carolina,” said Bob Ingram, general partner at Hatteras Venture Partners and former chairman and CEO of GlaxoWellcome.
North Carolina’s success in building a top-tier life science economy is “in large part due to the early foresight and consistent dedication of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center," according to the TEConomy report, which cites the Biotech Center’s strategic investments and role as a statewide connector as prominent contributors to the state’s success in bioscience innovation.
NCBiotech programs and initiatives, including loans, grants, regional and sector development, business services, special events and job services, have accelerated the industry’s growth statewide, the report said.
Since its founding, the Biotech Center has invested over $200 million in bioscience research, business, education and workforce training through more than 3,000 grants and loans.
“A key question is, did we leverage that funding to create impact for North Carolina,” said Mary Beth Thomas, senior vice president for science and business development, speaking at the Biotech Center’s 35th anniversary reception in November. “The answer to that question is a definitive yes.”
For example, the Center has loaned over $44 million to more than 200 startup companies at a critical time in the young companies’ growth and development. For every $1 loaned, those companies have raised a whopping $104 in follow-on funding from other sources to advance their research and commercialization.
That’s $4.6 billion leveraged from $44 million in funding, in addition to the thousands of jobs and hundreds of new products created by those companies.
Of the 200-plus companies supported by NCBiotech since 1989, more than half are currently active, employing 2,544 people and generating estimated revenues of $2.5 billion, according to the TEConomy report. That generates $3.8 billion in economic activity statewide, creates or supports 10,390 jobs earning $732 million in labor income, and produces $98.4 million in state and local taxes.
In addition to its company funding, the Biotech Center has awarded more than 1,500 grants totaling over $120 million to accelerate life science projects at universities and nonprofit research institutes. Faculty recruitment grants helped North Carolina universities attract 56 outstanding scientists. These faculty went on to establish at least 19 companies based on their ideas and technologies, and one recruit, UNC’s Oliver Smithies, won the Nobel Prize.
“North Carolina receives a strong return on its investment in NCBiotech,” says the TEConomy report.
North Carolina’s investment in bioscience infrastructure has paid large dividends in recent years with some gargantuan company expansions, most of them for biomanufacturing plants.
Between 2014 and 2019:
Novo Nordisk broke ground for a $1.8 billion production facility for diabetes medicines at its Clayton site that created about 700 high-paying jobs. The project was reported to be the single largest manufacturing investment in North Carolina history.
Merck, already with a $1.6 billion investment in its drug-manufacturing complex in Durham, announced it would invest around $650 million and create more than 400 jobs over five years at the Durham site and at its vaccine-production plant in Wilson.
Spanish blood therapeutics company Grifols announced a $210 million investment in two new facilities in Clayton, less than a year after it began production in a $370 million expanded plant there.
Q2 Solutions, a joint venture of IQVIA (formerly Quintiles) and Quest Diagnostics, announced plans for a new $73 million precision medicine facility in Durham that was expected to create about 750 jobs over seven years.
Pfizer began expanding its vaccine-manufacturing plant in Sanford with a $600 million investment in gene therapy that will bring 300 new jobs.
North Carolina’s cell and gene therapy sector grew rapidly in recent years as new tools of gene editing were introduced, refined and adopted.
In addition to Pfizer’s $600 million expansion in Sanford, the company purchased next-generation gene therapy company Bamboo Therapeutics of Chapel Hill for $150 million in a deal that could be worth as much as $645 million if certain milestones are met.
Bamboo was one of several spinouts of Asklepios Biopharmaceutical (AskBio), a gene-delivery technology company co-founded by entrepreneurs Sheila Mikhail and R. Jude Samulski, Ph.D., who was recruited to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the support of a faculty recruitment grant from the Biotech Center. AskBio has grown with the help of more than $700,000 in grants and loans from NCBiotech and more recently $225 million in venture capital.
Several other new gene therapy companies have been formed in the last few years, including Adrenas Therapeutics, Axovant Sciences, Couragen Biopharmaceutics, Enzerna Biosciences, Genencine Therapeutics, Locus Biosciences, OncoTrap, StrideBio. Other more established gene therapy companies announced major expansions or partnerships including AveXis, bluebird bio, Cellectis and Precision BioSciences:
AveXis, an Illinois-based company developing gene therapies for neurological genetic diseases, is investing $55 million in a new Durham manufacturing facility that will create 200 jobs.
Massachusetts-based bluebird bio invested $80 million in a Durham biomanufacturing plant to produce lentiviral vector for the company’s investigational gene and cell therapies. “We chose the Triangle for three reasons: the location, talent and access to universities,” said bluebird vice president Tom Leitch, speaking at the 2018 Life Science and Economic Development Summit in Raleigh. “We need world-class talent, and we just didn’t see it in other regions. We see it here.”
Paris-based biotechnology company Cellectis announced plans to invest nearly $70 million and create 200 jobs in Raleigh for the production of cancer therapies.
Precision BioSciences, a Duke University spin-out with a unique method to target and alter DNA, signed a development deal for cancer treatments with Baxalta that could bring the Research Triangle Park biotechnology company up to $1.6 billion.
To further boost the state’s expertise in gene therapy, Pfizer funded a new $4 million postdoctoral fellowship program in partnership with the Biotech Center. The program supports the scientific and professional development of exceptional postdoctoral fellows interested in establishing careers in gene therapy.
North Carolina voters in 2016 approved a $2 billion state bond referendum that will have long-term benefits for the state’s bioscience infrastructure and economic competitiveness.
The bonds will finance nearly $1 billion in new construction and building renovations on the 17 campuses of the University of North Carolina system and another $350 million on the 58 campuses of the state’s community college system. Most of those buildings house – or will house – science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs that conduct research and prepare students for careers in the biosciences.
Several North Carolina companies achieved the holy grail during the last few years: going public with initial public offerings of stock.
Patheon, a global contract drug manufacturer headquartered in Durham and with production plants in Greenville and High Point, raised $625 million before being acquired by Thermo Fisher Scientific for about $5.2 billion.
Durham-based Precision BioSciences, a genome-editing company focused on creating better foods and medicines, raised $145.4 million.
Drug developer vTv Therapeutics of High Point raised $117 million.
G1 Therapeutics, a cancer therapy company spun out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and supported by $500,000 in loans from the Biotech Center, raised $105 million.
Durham-based Dova Pharmaceuticals, focused on developing drugs for rare diseases, raised about $75 million before being acquired by the Swedish company Sobi.
Morrisville-based Liquidia Technologies, a biopharmaceutical company spun out of UNC, raised $50 million.
Argos Therapeutics, a Duke University spinout supported by NCBiotech, raised $45 million.
Innovate Pharmaceuticals, a Raleigh-based pharmaceutical company, raised $18.2 million as part of a reverse merger with another company
Also, Humacyte, a Duke University regenerative medicine spinout that got its first loan support from NCBiotech, raised $150 million in a committed Series B preferred stock financing – one of the largest private bioscience financings in state history.
In 2015 yet two more North Carolina scientists won the Nobel Prize.
Paul Modrich of Duke and Aziz Sancar of UNC were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Swedish scientist Tomas Lindahl. The three were recognized for their pivotal work in exposing how cells repair damaged DNA, which is opening doors to promising new ways to treat cancer and other maladies.
Modrich and Sancar became the fifth and sixth scientists in the state to win Nobels since 1988. The other four are George Hitchings and Gertrude Elion, 1988; Oliver Smithies of UNC, 2007; and Robert Lefkowitz of Duke, 2012.
Norris Tolson, president of the Biotech Center since 2007, retired in 2014. During his tenure, Tolson created an economic development division, expanded loan programs for small companies and added support programs to meet changing industry needs, including an Ag Biotech Initiative.
“I have been blessed to have such a tremendous opportunity to lead a strong organization that makes a difference for so many North Carolinians,” Tolson said.
“There is no end to the important work of the Biotech Center, and it’s essential to find the right leader to continue that work.”
That leader was Doug Edgeton, a veteran of the healthcare and economic development sectors and the Center’s senior vice president for financial planning and development. Prior to joining the Biotech Center in 2012, Edgeton was president of the Piedmont Triad Research Park as part of his role as executive vice president for administration at Wake Forest Baptist Health.
I want to particularly congratulate Doug Edgeton and his staff,” said Bob Ingram, speaking by video at the Biotech Center’s 35th anniversary program in November 2019. “We are today in great hands.”
Ingram, the venture capitalist and former Glaxo-Wellcome CEO and chairman, advised those in attendance to continue supporting the independent, non-partisan Biotech Center, dedicated to attracting, retaining and developing the state’s bioscience industry.
“Let’s rededicate ourselves to working with this Center to advocate for continuing investment in an industry that will benefit North Carolina,” he urged.
In a 35th anniversary podcast, two of the Biotech Center’s longest-serving executives, former President Charles Hamner and Bill Bullock, senior vice president for economic development and statewide operations, offered their hopes and advice for how the state can build on its bioscience success in the future.
Hamner said he wanted the state to continue attracting the best and brightest research faculty to its universities because the scientists are vital to generating new technologies, collaborating with bioscience companies and attracting federal research funding. Based on its strong university research faculties, the Research Triangle region leads the nation in NIH research funding per capita.
“As the older scientists retire or move onto something else, we should replace them with leading-edge cell therapists and leading-edge genomics people so we can stay in the forefront,” Hamner said.
North Carolina also needs to improve its commercialization of intellectual property generated by the state’s universities. The state is among the top five in the nation in generating intellectual property but is only average at developing it, he said.
“If we can improve that area, then our whole gross domestic product will go up like a rocket,” he said.
Bullock said, “North Carolina, as was the case 35 years ago, is incredibly well positioned to take a lead role in where life science is going.”
Artificial intelligence, information technology, big data, biology and engineering are all converging, he said, and “the question is how does North Carolina get ahead to benefit from that?”
His recipe is for the state to “double down” on its bioscience vision, leadership and collaboration, while leveraging its fundamental strengths including a trained workforce and strong research universities.
“I think that whoever gets to do this (work) in 20 years will have a better story than we have to tell (today),” he said, “and I think the citizens of North Carolina will be benefitting even more from life science and what it can do than they are today.”