Note: The Skinny blog is written by Rick Smith, editor and co-founder of WRAL Tech Wire and business editor of WRAL.com. This is the second of a two-part package featuring Charles Hamner.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Charles Hamner, one of the guiding forces in building North Carolina’s biotechnology and life science industries and thus N.C.’s “biofather,” is realistic in his forecast about the future of the business.

“The potential is fantastic,” says Hamner, who received a prestigious “North Carolina Award” last week in recognition of his efforts as leader of the N.C. Biotechnology Center for 14 years and his efforts to keep growing biotech since his retirement in 2002.

“It is a good growth industry,” he added. “Therapeutics are in great demand for our rapidly aging population. New plant species and new types of crop subsidies will provide us with better quality food and more food to feed the entire world. Biotech has reached about 50 percent of its growth curve in North Carolina, so we will be growing it at least 20 more years before the industry comes of age.”

According to the Biotech Center, the biotech sector is responsible for more than 290,000 jobs and $65 billion in commerce. The Triangle is regularly ranked as one of the largest biotech hubs in the country, and much of that growth came during Hamner’s tenure. He remains active in biotech affairs as chairman of The Hamner Institutes in RTP.

One of Hamner’s hopes for the future is nanotechnology, again an area where the state is recognized as an emerging leader.

“There will be new devices, technology and therapeutics, and the industry will utilize nanotechnology as well,” Hamner explained. “We will be able to produce more and produce items more quickly and affordably than in the past. There will be a huge number of jobs created in the process.

“I couldn’t be more enthusiastic.”

The Challenges

However, Hamner also has concerns about two factors that could limit that growth.

“Our biggest problem is finding money for the development of chemical and pharmaceutical products,” he declared. “It costs lots of money to go through development, proof of concept and other regulatory activities in order to get these products to the marketplace.

“Also, about 50 percent of new companies want to build manufacturing plants to create their products, but venture capitalists are not interested in spending money on that part of the business, and banks are reluctant to allow companies to borrow money for their creation as well.”

Hamner also is concerned about the potential of North Carolina to produce the numbers of qualified workers needed for new jobs.

“A second problem is getting young people in middle school excited about careers in biotech and taking science and math classes and university or community college programs they need in order to be technologists,” he said. “Jobs are readily available as microbiologists and clinical pathologists right now, but they need to have the training for them. Our school systems should be encouraging students to take the right type of courses to prepare for these jobs.

“The pool of managers needed for the industry must expand as well,” he added.

Hamner also had some advice for government leaders.

“Finally, the leadership at the state level needs to learn about biotechnology, or have individuals on their staffs familiar with it, in order to understand why and how we need to support the industry and educational efforts behind it,” he said. “We need to have a free enterprise system for biotech in order to be competitive.”

His Current Duties

Hamner keeps a close eye on the state’s players and advances in technology in large part through his role at The Hamner. He also consults.

“I provide some advisory work, if somebody is kind enough to ask me,” he said modestly.

“My main efforts the last five years have been helping Dr. William Greenlee, president and CEO of The Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences, put into place his wonderful vision of transformational research in order to accelerate innovation and commercialization of the next generation of translational life sciences tools and technologies.

“I’ve been trying to interact with industry and university leaders in such fields as genomics and metabolomics to put into place new molecular technology to replace old technology and provide critical advancements in the development of chemical and pharmaceutical products.

“If we do this successfully, we will have created a capstone institute for chemical and pharmaceutical research.”

The NC Biotechnology Center and The Hamner – quite a legacy for Charles Hamner who at age 76 is not about to retire from the job of continuing to grow biotech.

(For the first part of the Hamner interview, read here.)

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