Norris Tolson does not like being kneecapped.

A veteran legislator and the de facto leader of North Carolina’s life science industry as chief executive officer of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, Tolson is engaged in what is most likely the biggest fight of his political life.

He’s trying to head off a 60 percent slashing of the Biotech Center’s budget by Governor Pat McCrory.

The growth of the state’s life science/biotech industry over the past three decades has been nothing short of remarkable. A 2012 research report from The Battelle Group found that biotech and related firms are responsible for more than 237,000 jobs that produce nearly $15 billion in salaries and $59 billion in economic output. Over the decade covering 2001-2010, the life science sector grew an impressive 23.5 percent, which Battelle says was faster than any other state. And North Carolina already has the third largest biotech cluster in the country. 

A key to that grow has been the Biotech Center, which serves as a champion for the sector, operates numerous offices across the state, supports startups and research efforts with a variety of loans and grants, and also helps the state recruit new companies as well as more jobs.

McCrory stunned the biotech sector when proposed slashing the non-profit, state-funded Biotech Center’s budget to $7.2 million from $17.2 million.

When Tolson, a former Democratic legislator and head of the state’s revenue department before taking over as CEO of the Biotech Center in 207, issued a statement criticizing the decision, a McCrory spokesperson responded by saying the Biotech Center itself could even be made part of the state’s university system rather than continuing to operate independently.

But Tolson, a Biotech Center board member since 1997, is not giving up without a fight.

“We have two choices with a $7.2 million budget,” he told WRALTechWire.

“First, we could renege on our commitments to nearly 200 biotechnology projects across the state. We could then use that money for operations going forward. I do not believe that is the correct course of action. I believe the Biotechnology Center should keep its commitments on behalf of the state of North Carolina.

“Second, we can stop investing in early-stage technology. Startup companies would lose a critical source of funding – sometimes our loans are the only money they can get. Recruitment of new life-science companies to North Carolina would stop.

“Either scenario prevents us from executing on our mission. Without operating funds, we can’t make the important connections that power this state’s biotechnology industry. And without award money, ideas will never make it out of the laboratory. Worse, they may go to other states, which are dedicating more and more dollars to life sciences, even in tough budget times.

“Either way, we will lose our leadership position in this sector. And we will lose jobs.”

Tolson also doesn’t like the idea of becoming part of the UNC system. McCrory spokeswoman Kim Genardo told The News and Observer after the budget battle broke out: “The N.C. Biotechnology Center should be able to continue operations with $7.2 million per year. Noting that McCrory is taking “a fresh look” at all state-funded nonprofits, she added: “Do they remain private nonprofit and is that the best (situation) for them? Or does the N.C. Biotechnology Center need to be folded into the university system?”

Tolson prefers to remain independent, warning that North Carolina has a fight on its hands with other states in competing for life science jobs.

“Again, other states are investing heavily in biotechnology and life sciences,” he explained. “For many years, the Biotechnology Center has brought together many different players to navigate the obstacles to commercializing products and creating jobs. Without this neutral, third-party facilitator, everyone would work in their silo and we wouldn’t get the advantages of working together.

“I’ll give you an example. This past summer we launched the Biotechnology Crops Commercialization Center. There are so many opportunities for improving crops and their yields for North Carolina farmers, and this virtual center was created to work on those projects. The first project was in partnership with the meat animal industry, which needs about 300 million bushels of corn for feed every year. Some of that is grown in North Carolina, but about 200 million bushels have to be imported, from the Midwest or even further locations, at a premium of about $1.40/bushel.

“The crop science industry, crop and animal producers and university researchers are working together to develop new sources of animal feed. The first year, this group helped to increase the amount of grain sorghum grown in North Carolina. Combined with an increase in corn production because of good weather, this effort was able to save the meat animal industry $40 million to $45 million last year.

“Partnerships like this wouldn’t happen without the Biotech Center. The university researchers are focused on their next discovery. The industry is focused on business and doesn’t have time to figure out which research can help them the most. So the Biotechnology Center’s activities are critical, and partnerships like this wouldn’t happen without us.”

Tolson also pointed out that the “feed grain project includes NC State in addition to Clemson, the University of South Carolina and Virginia Tech.”

McCrory also recently disclosed plans to privatize in part the Department of Commerce. Could the same happen to the Biotech Center?

Tolson said the public-private partnership model has worked best for the life science sector.

“The Biotech Center represents an important and highly successful public-private partnership between the state and the biotechnology sector,” he said. “We bring together academic partners, industry representatives and policy makers to get technology and ideas to market faster.

“The Biotech Center has always operated on state funds. We believe our expertise, our model, and our success are an extremely good investment on the part of the state.”