Ebola is providing a stark reminder that Planet Earth is shrinking.

It wasn’t so long ago that the United States felt protected by oceans right and left. Then the Wright Brothers took to the skies of North Carolina’s Atlantic shore. Relatively soon after that, Americans discovered that Europeans, Asians, Middle Easterners and Africans were our neighbors – a mere plane ride away.

Easy global access opens doors to opportunity. And some of that opportunity includes bad things like enemy attack – not only human to human, but also infectious disease enemy to human.

‘All I need is a plane ticket’

Those sobering realities were the basis for the recent inaugural North Carolina Bio Defense Summit 2014 at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

One presenter put the problem of combining terrorism and infectious diseases squarely into the laps of the 110 participants.

“I don’t need a trillion-dollar ICBM for a delivery system,” quipped retired Major General Nick Justice, former commanding general of RDECOM, the Army’s technology innovator and integrator.

“If I want to attack somebody nowadays, all I need is a plane ticket to an international destination.”

NC: Big on military, short on DOD funding

NCBiotech organized the summit to explore ways North Carolina might best use its globally significant life science infrastructure to benefit the defense industry, and vice versa. Our state has a huge military presence, but far too few research dollars from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

The Summit participants discussed the various defense-related assets across the state and the possibilities for increasing DOD funding for North Carolina’s wide-ranging technologies – especially in the life sciences.

North Carolina speakers included Secretary of Commerce Sharon Decker, the governor’s military advisor Major General (ret) Cornell Wilson and the NC Military Foundation Executive Director Lance DeSpain. Also, Sen. Richard Burr gave a welcome via video.

Leaders of the Biomedical Advanced Research Development Authority (BARDA), the Army Research Office (ARO) and Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) presented, as did representatives of North Carolina companies in panel sessions involving medical and personal protection technologies and federal contracting.

Half from biz, others from fed & academe

About half the participants in the event were from North Carolina businesses, with the other half split about evenly between university research people and federal officials.

“This is a two-way street,” said Mary Beth Thomas, Ph.D., vice president of NCBiotech’s Centers of Innovation Program, who coordinated the event along with Maria Rapoza, Ph.D., NCBiotech’s Science and Technology Development Program vice president. “So with this Summit we’re able to start getting more of these key federal officials familiar with us, and vice versa.”

Several take-away messages from the summit will probably translate into action items for participants – and possibly into follow-up discussions, given the likelihood of another summit in the future.

Paperwork, complexity stall cash flow

Key among them seemed to be a need for more North Carolina companies and scientists to subcontract with other organizations with existing DOD contracts. The federal bureaucracy is extremely complex and experienced professionals can grease the skids for those with technologies they’d like to sell or test for use by U.S. war fighters.

Donna Altenpohl, vice president for public policy with GlaxoSmithKline, said the global pharma giant has been working with the federal government for about a decade, dealing with such issues as stockpiling emergency medicines and supplies and defense-related research and manufacturing. She said GSK “established an enterprise-wide initiative on biosecurity” to streamline its processes – and to work with government agencies to streamline theirs.

Participants also applauded NCBiotech’s leadership in putting the pieces together for the summit and for putting a spotlight on an important and appropriate revenue opportunity for the state’s life science companies.

Connections begun during event

“I’m already emailing some of my people back inside the Beltway” about some of the interesting technologies at the summit, said John Hannan, Ph.D., branch chief for threat surveillance with DTRA.

DTRA already works with 11 North Carolina entities, called “performers” in the vernacular of these Pentagon threat pros.

The agency spends some $350 million a year on environmental sensing systems for detecting and dealing with chemical and biological nerve agents and what Hannan ominously called “post-boom” decontamination technologies. For example, it was DTRA technology that was used to destroy confiscated Syrian chemical weapons aboard the Maritime Administration Ready Reserve Force vessel Cape Ray in August 2014.

It’s now obvious to Hannan and about 109 other participants in this first Bio Defense Summit that North Carolina has a lot more to offer the federal defense establishment – and vice versa.

Editor’s note: Jim Shamp is director of public relations for the North Carolina Biotechnology Center and is a frequent contributor to WRAL TechWire.

(C) N.C. Biotceh Center