RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – The Triangle’s biotechnology and life sciences “cluster” ranks fifth among the top 11 such metro areas included in a new study from the Milken Institute. But that ranking could increase in the future given recent expansions underway in the region, including the transfer of GlaxoSmithKline’s U.S. headquarters here from Philadelphia.

Interestingly, Philadelphia leads the Milken “composite index” with a composite score of 100, but much of the data is based on 2007 statistics.

In a section devoted to the Triangle, the Milken report authors noted it “substantially outperforms the national average with strong employment concentration." The region ranked first for employment concentration in the therapeutics and devices category, a field in which it also emerged as the top performer for indexed relative employment growth between 2002 and 2007 (coming in at 114, compared to the U.S. average of 100).

“Greater Raleigh-Durham’s employment concentration in biotechnology was also the highest of all 11 metros studied,” the report added. “Its excellent ranking in R&D stems from a cluster of hospitals, medical centers, and top universities.”

While the Triangle received a score of 80, the report doesn’t include projects such as the Merck expansion in Durham or the new Novartis vaccine plant in Holly Springs. Yes, GSK has trimmed some jobs among its 5,000-member work force in the area, but over time the headquarters move could be a boon to the area. Plus, GSK’s acquisition of privately held Stiefel Laboratories could provide a boost. The Florida-based firm operates an R&D lab in the Park and has already said some executives will be moving to the area.

It’s certainly no surprise that RTP be highly ranked. Other reports such as Ernst & Young’s annual survey consistently rate the Triangle as one of biotech’s hotbeds.

Let’s look at the Milken report, which uses data from three general categories (therapeutics and devices, supporting industries, healthcare industries) for the composite “score.” The Triangle scores:

• Therapeutics and devices: 88

• Supporting industries: 63

• Healthcare industries: 44

• Composite score: 80

The 11 metros’ overall scores:

1. Greater Philadelphia, 100

2. Greater New York, 93

3. Boston, 91

4. Greater San Francisco, 81

5. RTP, 80

6. Greater Los Angeles, 79

7. Chicago, 76

8. Minneapolis, 72

9. San Diego, 67

10. Washington, D.C., 63

11. Seattle, 54

In subcategories, Milken ranked RTP most highly for innovation output (second at 93) and research and development (second at 94) with an innovation pipeline rank of fourth (87).

Drags on the overall score included healthcare services (ninth at 44) and life science supporting industries (eighth at 63).

Sadly, the biggest drag remained something entrepreneurs have complained about for years – lack of “risk capital” and entrepreneurship (10th at 66).

It’s the old chicken-and-egg debate. Entrepreneurs need more venture capital, but the VC firms won’t make more money available for deals in the region without a better deal flow.

But, overall, the Milken report should be encouraging for North Carolina’s growing biotech sector that now employs more than 50,000 people. Better times could indeed be coming.