Editor’s note: Dr. Adrian Percy is vice president of development, North America, for Bayer CropScience. Bayer is a global enterprise with core competencies in the fields of health care, nutrition and high-tech materials. Bayer CropScience, a subgroup of Bayer AG that is based in Research Triangle Park, is one of the world’s leading innovative crop science companies in the areas of crop protection, non-agricultural pest control, seeds and traits.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — A report last month from real estate consultants Jones Lang LaSalle ranks the Raleigh-Durham area ninth in the United States among life sciences clusters. That puts us behind San Diego and Minneapolis, but ahead of Seattle and Chicago.

This sounds like a mark of distinction, but when other surveys such ones as Ernst & Young have listed us as high as third, and there are only 16 clusters ranked in the latest report, the placement appears less impressive than we would desire.

Does this mean Research Triangle Park is losing ground in the industry? Are we not keeping pace with other life science clusters? The answer to both questions is “no.”

We have many other activities and priorities in life sciences that are providing successful outcomes and will reap benefits in the long run. The report acknowledges most of these achievements, although these advantages may not be evident due to most of the attention being placed on the rankings.

Regarding the latter, the report by Jones Lang LaSalle – a financial and professional services firm specializing in real estate services and investment management – states that it focused on the biotechnology and pharmacology sub-sectors of life sciences in its rankings. That automatically skews against the Raleigh-Durham region, since we have several important sub-sectors such as agricultural technology and biofuels that were not measured fully in the report.

With that caveat in mind, the report based its methodology for measuring what we and other clusters have to offer under these criteria:

  • High tech research and hospital/medical employment (as percent of total employment)
  • Science and engineering graduate students (per 1,000 individuals ages 25-34)
  • National Institutes of Health funding
  • Venture capital funding
  • State research and development spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product
  • Academic and research institute facilities (in thousands of square feet)

We fared best with the last data point, ranking fourth at 4.3 million square feet, and we ranked in the top 10 in three other categories. What lowered our overall score was finishing 12th in grad students and 11th in R&D spending.

As the report noted, “Each cluster’s scores for the six data points were amalgamated to form a composite score. These scores were ranked and taken into consideration along with market intelligence to determine categorization.”

The setup of this ranking system, as indicated, did not take unique aspects about life sciences in Raleigh-Durham into account, although they were discussed favorably in the report. These elements must be considered in order to obtain a fuller picture of the industry’s status in the region.

For example, our strong support network between area companies, academia and assistance organizations such as the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, North Carolina Biosciences Organization (NCBIO), Biofuels Center of North Carolina, North Carolina Center of Innovation for Nanobiotechnology (COIN) and Research Triangle Regional Partnership (RTRP) have helped us move toward commercialization of life sciences products and services at a rate other regions envy.

Our universities host several top centers of excellence and research facilities that promote life sciences, including Duke’s Center for Biomolecular and Tissue Engineering (CBTE), UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute for Advanced Materials, Nanoscience, and Technology, and NC State’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS). Their proximity to many life science companies are a major selling point for the area. They understand the needs of the industry and have aligned development of their programs in coordination with other research activities occurring locally.

We are a leader in agricultural technology, a promising area for meeting our needs for food and fuel sources in the future. According to the report, “The region is already home to four of the top-five ag tech companies including Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, BASF and Monsanto.” Indeed, Bayer CropScience has recently built a state-of-the-art greenhouse to perform major studies in corn and soybean R&D. With a workforce of more than 20,700 across 120 nations, it is significant that Bayer CropScience has based its North American operations in Research Triangle Park.

The report’s authors write that “Home to the nation’s highest concentration of contract research organizations (CROs) and more than $2 billion in annual research and development expenditures, the Research Triangle region is a global leader in innovation infrastructure.”

CROs are essential for bio/pharma drug testing and thus reflect our importance in life sciences, while our five area incubators and business accelerators previously listed help support start-up companies. This region is a big believer in small business among life sciences – more than half of RTP’s 170 companies employ fewer than 10 people.

At the same time, the report says, “Some of the industry’s largest players are situated in the Research Triangle Region and have fueled much of the activity in the marketplace.” Top life science companies not only have established major presences in the area, but are expanding their activity as well, because they realize Raleigh-Durham is committed to being a major life sciences hub.

According to the report, “Merck is adding to its current footprint of roughly 600,000 square feet with a 200,000-square-foot manufacturing facility at its Varicella Bulk Facility. Merck is also building a 42,500-square-foot lab.”

One area not explored fully in the report is how the region is establishing significant collaborations with international life science organizations. Our state leaders, including Gov. Bev Perdue and the N.C. Department of Commerce, have made concerted efforts the last few years to encourage more overseas trade for job creation, investment and expansion. Having convenient access to Raleigh-Durham International Airport from RTP and nearby cities helps to make global partnerships with foreign countries and visits to and from them a relatively smooth process as well.

For example, The Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences and Ascletis, Inc. have signed a formal memorandum of understanding that supports the first large-scale joint venture in biotechnology between North Carolina and China’s Zhejiang Province by having Ascletis establish its U.S. R&D headquarters on The Hamner’s campus in Research Triangle Park.

Ascletis, a global specialty therapeutics company dedicated to discovering and developing important new treatments for cancer and infectious diseases, will maintain other operations in China in this innovative agreement.

The report concluded that even with a need for more life sciences grad students and R&D capital for the Triangle, “Given the deep-rooted presence of top industry companies, a favorable living environment that attracts out-of-state professionals and ample public/private interest groups in the area, the market has more than enough resources to sustain and grow the needs of the industry.”

Indeed, while it is true we are not the leader of life sciences in the United States, we do know what is necessary to improve our standing and accomplish more within the industry. There is every indication we will reach that goal in the future, given our assets of leading industry talent, flexible infrastructure, commitment to international collaborations, and community and educational support.

We already have approximately 10,000 people working in biomanufacturing alone in Raleigh-Durham, and more are anticipated to be added in coming years.

Finding out what the figures really mean is more important than the figures themselves. Whether we are No. 1, 9 or 16, we are still one of the top established life sciences clusters in America, and we remain dedicated to making more major contributions to the development and maturation of the industry.

As the report’s authors acknowledge that “cluster infrastructure is not the only determinant of a city or country’s viability as an industry hub,” they, too, recognize that there is more involved here in measuring life sciences than just a number.

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