Editor’s note: LimeLight is a new feature from WRAL TechWire offering another means of publishing noteworthy news. Be sure to check out more LimeLight worthy news at this link. Lawrence Bivins is managing director for policy and public affairs at the NC Economic Development Association (NCEDA).

BURLINGTON – The sudden and dramatic appearance of COVID-19 last March caught many North Carolina businesses and communities off guard. Most struggled to keep pace with the dizzying array of directives and procedures designed to slow the disease’s rapid spread. Nearly a year later, it remains a challenge.

But opportunities have similarly arrived in the pandemic’s wake. Alamance County, for example, had been a relatively quiet community nestled between the bustling Piedmont Triad and Research Triangle metro areas. Once the heart of North Carolina’s textile economy, the county is now home to retail and distribution operations. Its unique location, along with the presence of a key corporate headquarters, is fueling possibilities in life sciences partnerships and innovation.

Prior to COVID-19, the consistent growth of LabCorp (NYSE: LH), one of the world’s largest medical testing companies, had already begun transforming the city of Burlington, where the company is based. The pandemic brought immediate attention to LabCorp, which was founded in 1969 in the basement of a local hospital. Demand for the firm’s testing services soared. Revenues for the third quarter 2020 totaled $3.9 billion, an increase of 33 percent over the same period in 2019, according to the company’s latest earnings report. It employs 65,000 worldwide.

“LabCorp remains committed to fighting the pandemic through innovations in testing and clinical trials aimed at discovering treatments and vaccines,” LabCorp chairman and CEO Adam Schechter said upon the October earnings release.  “We delivered strong results in the quarter, with growth across both our Diagnostics and Drug Development businesses.”

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LabCorp’s presence provides potent seeds for a larger local life sciences economy, according to Algie Gatewood, president of Alamance Community College (ACC). “Alamance County is in a unique place when it comes to biotechnology and biological science,” Gatewood says. So confident is Gatewood in the community’s potential that he is working to create a Biotechnology Center of Excellence at the college. “We are essentially equidistant to two of the largest biotechnology regions in the state — the Triad and the Triangle.” ACC’s investment in the Center of Excellence seeks to build life science linkages between the two regions.

About 1,000 ACC graduates have already been snapped up by nearly life sciences companies – not just LabCorp, but names like BD Diagnostics, Cone Health, Pfizer, Merck, GSK and Syngenta. Universities in the areas – Duke, UNC and Wake Forest – have also recruited ACC grads.

“This pales in comparison to what we will be able to do once we complete the Biotechnology Center of Excellence,” Gatewood says. The $17.6 million, 33,000-sq.-ft. complex will be highly visible along the well-traveled I-85/40 corridor, “serving as a beacon for Alamance County’s leadership in biotechnology and life sciences,” Gatewood says.

In 2019, LabCorp announced plans to donate $1 million to ACC to help fund the purchase of equipment, technology and supplies at the center, which is scheduled for completion by August. In addition to biotechnology, the new building will house programs such as histotechnology and agribio, as well as state-of-the-art biology labs and small-business incubator space. “The third floor is an ideal space for further expansion, which could include options such as simulated clinical space or the biopharmaceutical manufacturing of vaccines and tablets,” Gatewood says.

The close relationship between LabCorp and ACC is not new. In 1985, the two organizations collaborated to launch ACC’s biotechnology program. Three years later, LabCorp supported the establishment of ACC’s medical laboratory technology program, which is co-located at one of LabCorp’s numerous Burlington facilities. ACC’s curriculum in histotechnology, the science surrounding the microscopic detection of tissue abnormalities for disease diagnosis and treatment, came about in 2018 as the result of collaboration between the two.

“ACC has great momentum and is uniquely positioned to address workforce development needs with its history as the first biotechnology program of its kind in the country and its vision for the future with its first Center of Excellence dedicated to biotechnology,” says Nancy Johnston, executive director of the NC Biotechnology Center’s (NCBiotech) Piedmont Triad Office.

In 2018, NCBiotech presented a $100,000 Economic Development Award (EDA) to the City of Burlington to boost bioscience industry growth in Alamance County. Those funds are helping ACC boost talent development within the local workforce.  Collaboration with NCBiotech goes even deeper: Johnston serves as advisor to ACC’s Center of Excellence for Biotechnology while Gatewood is a member of NCBiotech’s Piedmont Triad Regional Advisory Committee.

“Building infrastructure central to the Triad and the Triangle will help address growing workforce needs from medical lab technicians and ag biotech expertise to future biopharma manufacturing in cell- and gene-based therapies,” Johnston says. In the Burlington MSA, for example, employment in research, testing and medical labs is over seven times more concentrated than the national average.

North Carolina’s global reputation in the life sciences, which dates to the early 1980s establishment of the NC Biotech Center, is largely based on reliable supplies of well-trained workers, Gatewood says. “The state is positioned well to build on this leadership, and with the exciting opportunities for growth in the post-pandemic economy, Alamance County is in an inviable place to participate,” he says. “Our Center of Excellence offers a great opportunity for partnerships with private companies – and our door is open.”

About the author

Lawrence Bivins is managing director for policy and public affairs at the NC Economic Development Association (NCEDA), a WRAL TechWire partner. Reach him at lawrence@nceda.org