(Editor’s Note: Jim Shamp is director of public relations at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center and submitted this article on behalf of the organization.)

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – What’s it worth for North Carolina to have the nation’s third-largest core of life-science companies?

A Fitch Ratings report this week offers some interesting food for thought in that regard. Hang with me for a minute as I try to hook the abstract to the concrete.

Fitch is giving Franklin County’s $64.9 million general obligation bonds a “stable” AA bond rating.

In citing its “key rating drivers,” biotechnology is the first thing Fitch mentions. Despite the county’s 9 percent July unemployment rate, higher than the state and nation, “the county’s limited employment base has expanded somewhat to absorb ancillary needs of the biotechnology industry in the area’s Research Triangle Park.”

Franklin County’s economy, traditionally based in agriculture and textiles, “has broadened somewhat as biotechnology manufacturers gravitate to Research Triangle Park,” says Fitch.

“Biotechnology employment still remains modest, with most firms employing fewer than 200, excepting Novozymes North America, Inc., the county’s largest employer (460 employees).” Fitch recognizes that a world-beater like Novozymes is a talent magnet anywhere. Fortunately, so have a lot of North Carolina business, academic and elected leaders during the past three decades.

The Fitch report says the county “can accommodate long-term economic growth due to the Kerrtar Regional Economic Corp., a four-county consortium that expects to attract additional biotechnology jobs, although there are currently no tenants. Fitch believes that the inherent strength of Research Triangle Park will ultimately benefit the county.”

I think so too. We’re talking 30 miles from Raleigh. That’s pretty close to the solar plexus of the life sciences in North Carolina.

It’s the ripple effect

As I write this I’m getting ready to hunker down for the first 2012 debates involving North Carolina’s gubernatorial candidates and the United States’ presidential candidates, I hope they all show that they understand the amazing ripple effect of a long-term life-science commitment. Sure, the first wave is great when a new factory like Novozymes’ puts our neighbors to work. But more than a decade later, we’re seeing great “ripples” like this Fitch rating and continued increases in Novozymes employment. Fitch is reinforcing biotech as a current and future economic driver.

According to a report prepared for the North Carolina Biotechnology Center by Battelle, North Carolina’s life-science industry accounts for 226,823 direct and indirect jobs at more than 500 companies. Average wages at these companies are $75,000, nearly twice the state average. That’s $12.7 billion in overall compensation.

The life sciences generate $64.6 billion in North Carolina business volume, which translates into $1.92 billion in taxes for state and local government. It’s a thriving segment that logged an eye-opening 23.5 percent growth from 2001 to 2010. That contrasts big-time with my investment portfolio or the state’s overall private-sector job loss for the period. It’s even 3.5 times the national bioscience growth rate.

And it’s happening statewide. RTP’s 50-year success has led to the creation of other tech parks across the state, including Centennial Campus, Gateway University Research Park, the Charlotte Research Institute, the Piedmont Triad Research Park, plus the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis.

The Biotech Center has regional offices in Asheville, Charlotte, Greenville, Wilmington and Winston-Salem, and a statewide focus on partnerships to boost agriculture, making the best of our state’s wonderful geographic and cultural diversity to help everyone prosper in some way from the life sciences.

Our state invested more than $1.2 billion in its biotech base from 1998 to 2008 alone. Others are now investing billions to try to catch up. During that decade we put $115 million into the pipeline through loans, grants and other programs via the Biotech Center. The state plunked $857 million into research and related facilities. It put another $135 million into workforce training and $102 million into infrastructure as direct company incentives.

Thanksgiving’s coming soon. But if our political leadership remains committed to supporting this big tool box we call biotechnology, I’ll breathe a thankful sigh no matter the outcome Nov. 6.