Durham – Norris Tolson, the new chief executive officer and president of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, is a tireless advocate for growing technology and jobs in his native state.
Wednesday evening, for example, Tolson attended a medical device program at the Biotech Center where a strategic plan was unveiled calling for the creation of an advanced medical technology center.
Before that event ended, Tolson drove to the Bull Center to speak at The Exchange, a networking event put on by WRAL Local Tech Wire. In a 30-minute talk, Tolson outlined some of the medical technology center plans. He also talked about the state’s booming biotech sector and the potential of related industries such as biofuels.
As Tolson spoke, I couldn’t help but think about what North Carolina would be like today if some far-sighted individuals led by former Governor Jim Hunt had not taken the risk of creating the Biotech Center, MCNC and other efforts that have become crucial components for the state’s technology community.
Tolson, a North Carolina native from a farm near Rocky Mount, recalled talking with Hunt about the decisions the state made to focus on biotech, information technology and education (North Carolina School of Science and Math, as a prime example).
Recalling that he asked Hunt how the governor chose to focus on biotech, Tolson saidHunt told him politicians “get lucky” now and then.
Luck or clairvoyance, the decisions to build the Biotech Center and MCNC have helped fuel North Carolina’s drive to build new industries while tobacco, furniture and textiles have faded.
Sure, there have been struggles and failures over the years. MCNC evolved to embrace new missions such as the Internet, was split up and some parts of it sold. But the MCNC networking group flourishes under the old MCNC name.
The Biotech Center, meanwhile, continues to help build momentum for the state’s bio sector with regional offices, new programs, and much more. Tolson, a farm boy now technologist, wants the Center to build even more on the work of such leaders as Leslie Alexandre, who stepped down in January, and Charles Hamner, who led the center for more than a decade.
Not every government investment pays off, of course. And the debate in the General Assembly over big grants to tire companies has led to a compromise with Gov. Mike Easley that will be interesting to follow. Is the state being wise in committing so much to existing traditional jobs while possibly taking funds that could have been better used to build jobs in the technology sector?
Let’s hope that the incentives not only help keep tire plants open and keep people working. But state leaders also have to keep focused on helping the private sector create new jobs in technology and biotech. As Tolson noted in his remarks, most new jobs in the state are created by small businesses.
Other opportunities can be seized just as Hunt and his cohorts did in the 1980s. The advanced medical technology center could offer a huge payday in jobs and investments. The new biofuels center could be another hub around which an industry grows.
Twenty years from today, will one of these centers stand as a symbol of success just as the Biotech Center and MCNC do now?
Let’s hope so.