It’s 2012 and WRAL TechWire’s “Full Steam Ahead Awards” is announcing winners. They each receive an engineer’s cap, keeping with the Full Steam theme. And Dr. Charles Hamner almost sprints to the stage twice as he wins not one but two caps – a rare achievement in the five-year history of the awards. Smiling like a Hollywood star who had just won an Oscar, Hamner donned his caps to uproarious applause. He still wears them with pride.

“I was looking through some of my papers the other day and saw your Full Steam Ahead award and I still wear the Railroad cap you gave me in Durham,” Hamner told me recently.

Tuesday night in Raleigh he receives another TechWire award, becoming one of the first five people to be named to our Hall of Fame, which honors individuals for life time contributions to North Carolina’s high tech and life science ecosystems. Although he retired from the Biotech Center in 2002, Hamner remains actively involved in the biotech industry as an advisor to startps and on legislative issues. So the story of Charles Hamner continues to be written.

“I’m excited to learn this news,” said Hamner, who has won numerous honors for his contributions to our state, including the North Carolina Award in 2011.

He’s been called the “biofather” of N.C.’s growing life science industry (now one of the nation’s largest) – and with good reason.

“Charles Hamner is among those who were present at the creation at the dawning of the life science industry in North Carolina,” says one of the advisors who helped pick TechWire’s first Hall of Famers.

“Hamner, as the head of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center from 1988-2002, understood the connection between the state’s agricultural heritage, crop science research under way at its universities, and the pharmaceutical industry, which needed access to research talent and manufacturing facilities.

“Hamner has been a tireless recruiter of biotech companies to the state, a champion of science education at every level, and an effective advocate in the legislature. He also is genuinely one of the nicest people you could ever meet.”

Best known for his role at the Biotech Center, Hamner also was recognized when The Hamner Institutes, an RTP-based group that focused on a mixture of chemical, biotech and science initiatives, was named in his honor. It ceased operations in 2016.

Here is our Q&A with Dr. Hamner.

  • Let’s go back to the beginning of your N.C. career, How were you drawn to the NC BIO president’s position, who recruited you, and what were you doing at the time? Why did you choose to accept the job with a relatively new organization?

I had worked in biotechnology since the early 1960s starting with the role of Coenzyme Q10 in mitochondrial function along with in-vitro fertilization plus between 1965 and 1980 helping to produce five major therapeutic compounds in the pharmaceutical industry;during that time the biotech industry as we know it was born [and] branded.

Fast forward to 1986 – 87; I looked briefly at biotechnologies possibilities in Texas and Maryland but Dr. Stuart Bonderant, Dean , School of Medicine , UNC-CH came to the U. of Virginia where I was Associate VP for Health Affairs and invited me to meet with the NC Biotechnology Committee.

The NC Committee heard my core suggestions for growing the industry and seemed to like the approach. They made me an offer and I felt it was an opportunity to put my ideas to work creating a new industry.

  • What is your proudest memory of your tenure?

Finding the resources and helping design and build the HQ building in RTP for the Biotechnology Center.

  • In contrast, what was your biggest disappointment and how did you and the Biotech Center overcome it?

During my first 3 to 4 years the Center had very few requests from the State’s Historic Black Colleges and Universities to the Science and Technology Division. I told Governor Jim Hunt that I thought they needed help to hire more biotechnology faculty that were trained in the Life Sciences.

He found the resources and each institution was able to hire two or three faculty for their Bioscience Department. In addition Mr. Dan Blue, State Senator worked with us to create what is now BRITE Center at NCCU which trains clinical technologist.

  • What excites you most about entrepreneurship?

This is the innovative ,high risk side of the industry. I relate to them because ideas often pop in my mind and I don’t mind the risk as long as one does the careful and complete project planning ( activity, time, cost relationships ) needed to produce a product.

  • What are you doing now? Are you still involved with state’s biotech sector and if so why?

I offer consulting services to industry or academics. Currently I’m working with a team to set in motion an operating nucleus for several Universities involved in the new Legislative approved Rare Disease Innovative Institute.

I’m also advising two start-up companies on developing solid business and phased operating plans while obtaining needed resources.

  • The North Carolina Biotech Center has grown to the largest such organization in the country, and you played a big role in that. What are your feelings about NC Biotech Center today as it continues to grow and involve?

In life there is timing and “luck” and both are important to success.

Timing was excellent and funding was fortunate; the four basic programs were essential:

  1. Life Sciences and Technology developed by Dr. Donna Moroni,
  2. Corporate Affairs and External Relations including especially education programs at all levels developed by Steven Burke,
  3. Business and Technology Development developed by Juli Tenney and Tom Laudon,
  4. plus solid Administration.

These still exist and managers following my effort have nurtured and improved them as the technology evolved . The industry will continue to grow for another 15 years due to genomics, precision medicine, nanotechnology and analytical computing.

  • There are hundreds of startups in the Triangle alone while the Triad and Charlotte have growing hubs. What factors are driving this growth in life science?

Strong University Research programs involving basic and applied disciplines producing advanced technologies; build- up of experienced entrepreneurs; scientist evolving from pharmaceutical company changes in their approaches to technology development programs; funding beginning to recognize NC innovations.

  • How important is entrepreneurship to NC’s future in your view?

Job creation evolves from emerging industries where as mature industry tends to maintain jobs. Therefore, economic development growth gets a major push from entrepreneurial activity and a huge benefit when companies like Quintilies, PPD, Red Hat ,ect. are started.