RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – With billions in recent announcements for new plants and expansions and thousands of promised jobs, North Carolina’s life science sector is booming. And it’s not just facilities from companies new to the region. Rather the surge is a mix: new, existing firms and emerging companies. Then there are local firms attracting investment capital. Thirdly, the availability of talent emerging from schools and universities who are choosing to stay in NC.
So concluded three panelists on the “Engines of Innovation” panel at the CED Venture Connect Summit this week.
“We’ve become a hub for manufacturing, we’ve got companies from multiple regions in the county and homegrown companies setting up really sophisticated next-generation medicines,” said Aravind Asokan, Ph.D., professor and director of gene therapy at Duke University.
That includes companies that are continuing to make an investment in the region, like FUJIFILM Diosynth, which this month announced plans to build the world’s largest cell- and gene-therapy manufacturing facility in Holly Springs, adding 725 jobs to the region and will invest $2 billion.
“There has been a deluge of companies moving here and setting up shop, and that’s a benefit to the region and how it is perceived and its resources,” said Asokan, who is also a co-founder of StrideBio.
That also includes companies whose founding occurred in the Triangle, and whose growth has occurred here in the region—like Humacyte, which now has a valuation of $1.1 billion and is among the latest companies to pursue a public offering via a special purpose acquisition company or SPAC.
Meanwhile, said Asokan, there is renewed interest in life science startups among venture capitalists and from potential strategic investors and corporate groups seeking to form strategic partnerships with startups in the region.
“The renewed interest in startups from venture capital and strategics is a very good trend that we’d like to see continue,” said Mary Beth Thomas, senior vice president of science and business development at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in an interview with WRAL TechWire this week. “And much of this trend can be attributed to the quality of the startups that our universities are spinning out.”
These universities serve as “engines of innovation,” as described by Rodolphe Barrangou, the Todd R. Klaenhammer distinguished professor at North Carolina State University. “We spend a lot of time and energy translating our research and that science into industry,” said Barrangou, “to bring those technologies to market in companies.”
Barrangou is also the founder of Intellia Therapeutics and a co-founder and chief science officer at Ancilla Biosciences and is the editor in chief of The CRISPR Journal.
“As a research university, we are trying to bridge the gap between academic research and corporate research,” he added. “To address the biggest challenges.”
“We’re engines of innovation, talking about how we fuel innovation,” said Barrangou. “Professors that work there and the trainees that work there, we are designers, and engineers, and researchers.”
The education component
Then there’s talent.
“Keeping an eye on the future, it’s really exciting to be able to straddle the space when we’re also in charge of the next generation of trainees that keep these innovations going,” said Asokan. “There’s a lot of excitement here that’s driving the space.”
The region’s universities continue to spin out high-quality companies, said Thomas, after creating support programs for faculty researchers who are interested in advancing their technologies, resulting in accelerating the maturation of their technologies.
Universities have played a key role in the commercialization of academic research, said Thomas, through intentional efforts to develop and implement internal funding to support early proof-of-concept work, access mentors, or the I-Corp and SBIR support programs that often make moving forward much easier for entrepreneurs. “These all add up to startups that come into the ecosystem primed for their future investors and partners,” said Thomas.
The industry is on the right track, fueled in part by the work being conducted at the region’s universities, said Thomas, with more than 775 life science companies across the state, with the growth trajectory demonstrating anticipated expansion.
Yet for the industry to thrive, and to capitalize on its full potential, said Thomas, it is important to “pay attention to the continuum of what it takes to grow our life sciences foundation.”
North Carolina will grow differently than Boston or California, said Thomas, as the state has a different set of assets, a different culture, and a different environment.
“One of the reasons I came to UNC was certainly the RTP area, it had the feeling that it was a much better place to start companies than the Knoxville, TN area,” added Mike Ramsey, the Minnie N. Goldby Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill and founder of 908 Devices, who was also named “inventor of the year” in 2020. “I feel like there is a little bit of a vacuum in terms of business leadership skill sets in managing startup companies that we can access in the area.”
“I have a fairly broad network of investors that I speak to, and turns out, none of them are in RTP,” he noted. “Maybe I am missing people, but most of my connections are on the east coast or the west coast.”
That talent development—for early-career scientists, but also for c-level executives—is particularly important to the growth of the life sciences across the Tar Heel State, said Thomas.
The future needs
“As we reach the next stage of development for RTP, we are going to need more experimental entrepreneurs, more upper-level management to oversee those trainees coming out of universities who are more junior,” said Barrangou.
“If we are going to reach the next stage, we need to seed the early rounds of innovation, to really take technology out of universities and commercialize it at scale.”