Editor’s note: Leslie Alexandre, Dr. P.H., is President and CEO of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park, a private, non-profit corporation established by the State of North Carolina in 1984 and supported by the General Assembly. Before joining the Biotechnology Center in August 2002, Alexandre was Assistant Director for Industrial Relations in the Office of the Director at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md.

This is the latest Entrepreneurial Spirit column published in partnership between the Council for Entrepreneurial Development and WRAL Local Tech Wire.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Starting a bioscience company is a complex undertaking fraught with challenges. Entrepreneurs need innovative technology, good business plans, substantial financing, capable partners, and skillful managers to pull everything together. A little luck doesn’t hurt either.

Fortunately, North Carolina has a bevy of public and private organizations dedicated to helping bioscience entrepreneurs meet these challenges. However, so do many other states that are competing for new bioscience jobs. So what separates North Carolina from the pack?

Without a doubt, North Carolina’s distinguishing factor is the spirit of partnership among the organizations championing bioscience entrepreneurship. The degree of communication, cooperation and coordination among these entities is remarkable and often is perplexing to out-of-state visitors who are unaccustomed to such community dynamism in their home states. Any of the 800-plus attendees of the Biotech 06 conference in Winston-Salem this spring could surely feel the enthusiasm and energy buzzing through this community.

This spirit is a major reason why North Carolina has been ranked No. 3 nationally in number of biotechnology companies for three years running. Bioscience entrepreneurs are supported enthusiastically at each stage of their companies’ development by an array of closely aligned organizations, programs and services that complement, but don’t duplicate, one another.

These assets include the Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED), the Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC), the North Carolina Board of Science and Technology (NCBST), the North Carolina Biosciences Organization (NCBIO), and of course the state’s excellent universities and community colleges. The neutral, non-profit North Carolina Biotechnology Center is ideally positioned to catalyze and coordinate these assets to support bioscience entrepreneurship throughout the state.

Starting Out

When entrepreneurs need new technologies, they can turn to university technology-transfer offices or partner on technology deals with the state’s many multi-national bioscience companies right in their own back yard. Their next stop is frequently the Biotechnology Center, which offers five low interest loan programs (www.ncbiotech.org/services_and_programs/grants_and_loans/index.html ) providing from $15,000 to $250,000 in support of company inception, technology development and corporate growth. These loans help position companies to attract more substantial funding in the form of federal grants, angel investment, venture capital and debt financing. To date, 97 companies have received $16 million in Biotechnology Center loans and have gone on to raise an astounding $1.3 billion in follow-on funding from other sources.

Non-dilutive financing is invaluable to young bioscience companies. Grants, particularly from the federal government’s $2 billion Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, are an obvious and readily available source of such financing. North Carolina bioscience entrepreneurs can rely on several state-sponsored programs to help them access and leverage SBIR and STTR grants. The SBTDC sponsors an annual SBIR/STTR funding conference and provides workshops, counseling, mentoring, proposal review, and listings of SBIR/STTR resources (www.ncsbir.org ). The NCBST offers programs (www.ncscienceandtechnology.com ) that reimburse firms up to $3,000 of the cost of preparing Phase I proposals and provide up to $100,000 in matching funds for Phase I awards. And, the Biotechnology Center’s SBIR Bridge Award program provides up to $75,000 to help companies maintain technology development momentum during the gap between funding phases of the SBIR program.

Raising Investment Capital

North Carolina bioscience companies seeking equity investment are fortunate to reside in a state with several outstanding venture capital firms and angel networks. In addition, entrepreneurs can avail themselves of opportunities to meet, network with, and pitch their business plans to angel investors and venture capitalists from throughout North America by participating in the CED’s annual venture capital conference (www.cednc.org/conference/venture/2006/ ).

One of the CED’s highest priorities is to expand the supply of venture capital available to North Carolina entrepreneurs. The CED is supported in this endeavor by the Biotechnology Center, which is able to qualify individual investors in North Carolina venture capital funds for the Qualified Business Venture Tax Credit. According to managers of the 19 funds in which the Biotechnology Center has invested nearly $2 million over the years, the Biotechnology Center’s small investment typically enables a fund to raise hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars more from individual investors than would otherwise have been possible.

Training, Mentoring and Networking

Technology and capital are two of the three essential ingredients in forming a successful bioscience company. The other, of course, is management. The CED offers no fewer than seven mentoring and training programs (www.cednc.org/programs_and_events/topics/mentoring_and_training/ ) including FastTrac Tech, STREAK and Curbside Consulting. A smorgasbord of other entrepreneurial mentoring and management training programs is provided by the SBTDC, several university business schools, and regional entrepreneurial networks such as Piedmont Triad Entrepreneurial Network and Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council. Informal help with business planning and capital formation is routinely provided to companies by staff of the Biotechnology Center’s Business and Technology Development Program.

A shared priority for the CED, NCBIO and the Biotechnology Center is to provide bioscience entrepreneurs with plentiful opportunities for networking. The close partnership that exists among these three organizations has helped ensure that company entrepreneurs seeking new collaborations are flush with opportunities to network with venture capitalists, scientists, educators, engineers, accountants, attorneys, and other potential partners. Chief among these events are the CED’s monthly Biotech Forum held at the Biotechnology Center and the annual statewide Biotech conference co-sponsored by CED, NCBIO and the Biotechnology Center.

Industry Leadership and Advocacy

Bioscience entrepreneurs in North Carolina — indeed all members of the state’s bioscience community — have a vital ally in NCBIO (www.ncbioscience.org ), which represents the best interests of biotechnology, pharmaceutical, agricultural, medical device and biomanufacturing companies with federal, state and local policy makers. NCBIO has worked tirelessly to expand public investments in bioscience companies and life-science venture funds, and to expand tax incentives for investments and research. And it has advocated increased state funding for life science research grants and to enhance university access to federal research dollars. NCBIO’s effectiveness in demonstrating the value of bioscience companies to the state’s economy was once again proven in the recently completed session of the North Carolina General Assembly, which brought about tens of millions of dollars of additional state investment in life sciences and entrepreneurship.

The presence of CED, NCBIO, SBTDC, NCBST and the Biotechnology Center — and other like-minded organizations — and the spirit of partnership among them, has nurtured a dynamic entrepreneurial culture in North Carolina. There’s no better time to start and grow a bioscience company, and there’s no better place than North Carolina.

NC Biotech Center: www.ncbiotech.org