Wilmington — It was a short question that John Hardin had to field with a long answer. Yet he started with a significant nugget: “North Carolina’s key asset is its economic development ecosystem.”Hardin, executive director of the North Carolina Department of Commerce Office of Science, Technology & Innovation, was a panelist in a “debate” forum at the BioMarine Business Convention in Wilmington this week.

The panel included his counterparts from the Canadian province of Quebec and the Nordic nation of Norway. They were among more than 100 global marine biotech specialists gathered for three days this week for the sixth annual BioMarine Business Convention – the first ever held in the United States.

“We have a uniquely effective economic development ecosystem,” explained Hardin when the question came from panel moderator Pierre Erwes, chairman of the BioMarine International Clusters Association, which sponsors the convention.

We all need to cooperate

“It may look from the outside to be a bit disorganized, with several different groups involved,” said Hardin. “But from the inside, it becomes obvious that it works very well. Each group has a special expertise. For instance, right here in the audience we have people from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, the Marine Bio-Technology Center of Innovation, the state’s Economic Development Partnership, the Department of Commerce, and from regional economic development organizations. And we all know one another’s strengths and weaknesses. When we can’t handle something, we know where to go. It’s a well-functioning team — something not many states have.”

Georges Farrah, associate general secretary of Quebec’s Secretariat aux Affaires Maritimes, cited the province’s access to the St. Lawrence Seaway, its dozens of commercial fisheries and 20 so-called “blue biotech” companies among its key assets.

Jartrud Steinsli, deputy director general of the Norwegian Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries, noted that Norway’s population of five million is about half that of North Carolina’s. She said the country, however, has a global lead in public/private collaborations focused on a sustainable future for the world’s oceans.

“The oceans are facing many threats, with climate change, pollution, management of ecosystems,” she said. “We all need to cooperate — corporations, researchers, businesses.”

Some of Hardin’s other major points included:

“NCBiotech was started by the board I work for, the North Carolina Board of Science and Technology, more than 30 years ago. We were pioneers, to reach out 30 years ago and come up with idea for a biotech center, and later to come up with offshoots of the Biotech Center in ag bio and marine bio. That sustained focus cannot be underestimated. North Carolina has for a long time now been very strong in ag and very strong in biotech. By merging these two, that was an incredibly smart move. You tend to achieve what you focus on, and we’re focused on bio-marine, bio ag and biotech.”

“International relations needs an open transfer of information, trust and understanding among people. Some think in modern times that maybe we don’t need to get together, maybe we don’t need to spend money for receptions on battleships. But I’d say this about relationships and trust — I’d say that reception last night (the BioMarine opening reception on the USS North Carolina) may be as important if not more important than some of the business sessions here today. People met each other, shared in a relaxed atmosphere.

“Business success needs a basic level of trust and information sharing. My wife would say the same is required for a good marriage. She tells me repeatedly to tell her things.

“Human beings have been exploiting the oceans, in a good sort of way, since the beginning of time — for food or medicines, lots of benefits. But the amount of untapped potential is still much greater than tapped potential. All of us would like to do that, but North Carolina would like to do that in cooperation with others. We all are touching the same oceans. What goes in and out in one place goes in and out in another. North Carolina has distinctive things that may not be the same as what Norway or Quebec can offer.”