- The budget cuts were made, changes were made, but this has been a difficult year for the Center. What do you see as the biggest challenges as you take over the CEO position?
Our biggest challenge continues to be competition from other states and countries, which are investing heavily in the life sciences. Not only are they investing more money than North Carolina, but they are creating innovative programs to grow small companies and attract larger ones. These all threaten North Carolina’s leadership, and we believe that maintaining North Carolina’s leadership position provides tangible benefits. Translating those benefits is another challenge. We believe the positive steps we made in this past legislative session are a reflection of a deeper understanding of the positive impact the life sciences have on our state.
- You have worked at the Center as an employee and have been involved in working with the Center over the years given your previous roles. How does your experience and knowledge help prepare you for the CEO position?
At the Piedmont Triad Research Park, now Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, I was the point person for delivering on many elements of our strategic plan. This required multiple constituencies to work together to secure property, plan for the infrastructure, secure funds to complete the multiple projects that accompany large-scale developments. I then worked with those same people to recruit occupants for that space before construction started. In addition one of my early projects involved collaborating with the Center to establish the first NCBiotech office outside of RTP.
Both at PTRP and the Biotech Center, the value of relationships is clear. You build relationships by connecting people to the resources they need. That’s the value of what the Biotech Center does for North Carolina’s life science industry, and I think that understanding is critical to success in this role.
- Norris Tolson had a distinguished record as CEO of the Center. Have you asked him for advice as you take on the new role, and if so what insight did he have to offer? Will you continue to consult with him going forward?
Norris helped me understand the breadth of impact that the life sciences can have. I’m very familiar with the commercialization process for human health products. He has shown me the great opportunity in ag biotech, biodefense and other sectors as we work to heal, fuel and feed the world. Those solutions can come from North Carolina, and it’s up to us to make that happen.
Though I had limited communications with Norris prior to joining NCBiotech, we share similar values. We come at this from different backgrounds, so these values forged common ground for us during my first 18 months at the Biotech Center. I will undoubtedly seek Norris’ unique knowledge and insight in the future.
- Norris had the benefit of having been both a politician and a bureaucrat in state government. You have not had that experience. How are you going to deal with the political challenges on Jones Street, especially after Norris was unsuccessful in fending off the budget cuts?
At PTRP, I worked with some combination of city, county, regional, state and federal governmental agencies. This partnership was critical for every project to succeed. For example, when the federal government passed new legislation mandating communities to manage storm-water runoff, there were no existing plans for how that would be handled.
As we looked at options we found the best approach was to provide a solution that managed the storm-water runoff for all of downtown Winston-Salem. This required working with multiple units of the federal, state, county and city governments while simultaneously working out construction costs and funding with the developers. It’s similar to the public-private partnerships that the Biotech Center creates between academia, government and industry.
This approach has been fruitful, and that’s the important message to convey to our stakeholders. The Biotech Center has been highly successful in targeting state dollars to opportunities that bring in additional money to the state. Our grant recipients bring in $28 on average for each dollar awarded. (The vast majority are federal funds.) Our loan portfolio companies earn an average of $117 for each $1 loaned. These results and our community support helped to mitigate budget cuts last year and to increase our funding this year.
- Is restoring the budget to previous levels – or larger – one of your top priorities? Why is that important?
Yes, continuing to restore our funding is a top priority. The Biotech Center has filled gaps in the pipeline for commercializing products. We help translate technology out into a company. We support small company startup activities, including early funding. We connect companies to resources as they grow, and we also work to bring new companies here. As new applications of biotechnology emerge, for example agricultural biotechnology, biodefense and marine biotech, we make sure North Carolina leads the way.
Each of these activities requires funding. Often, Biotech Center dollars come into the process when few others will fund an activity. It’s just too early in the development cycle. Our business and science experts on staff help identify reasonable risks and support those technologies to market. The end result is companies that create jobs. So our funding has a direct impact on job creation for the state.
In addition, we compete against California, Massachusetts, Texas, Maryland, Florida and others to grow and recruit life science business. These states devote more dollars to this sector. We have to be creative in finding ways to bring technologies to the marketplace that will improve lives, create well-paying jobs and create wealth for the people of our state.
Coming later today: Part Two