RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – North Carolina is vying for up to $75 million in funding as part of the US Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) “Build Back Better Regional Challenge.” This week, it got to make its case in person.
On Monday, EDA officials paid an on-site visit to Novo Nordisk Pharmaceutical in Clayton, touring the facilities before sitting down for a roundtable discussion with local and state government representatives to discuss the state’s participation in the competitive funding process.
North Carolina boasts two finalists. Among them: a statewide coalition of public and private partner organizations, led by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center (NCBiotech), aimed at boosting the region’s life sciences manufacturing while supporting North Carolina’s most distressed communities. A second consortium is being led by the Piedmont Triad Regional Council.
They are two finalists of only 60 chosen from a field of 529 applicants to reach the second phase, securing up to $500,000 to further develop their proposals. Both are now competing to be among 20 to 30 regional coalitions to ultimately be awarded between $25 million and $75 million for a collection of three to eight distinct “transformational projects.” The projects are geared at supporting industry clusters advancing equity and economic development. A final decision is expected in September.
“This program is a first of its kind,” said Dennis Alvord, EDA’s deputy assistant secretary and chief operating officer, who headed up the discussion. “We recognize that we’ve got to do a better job of empowering communities. It’s been more incremental in nature in the past. We’re now trying to take a very holistic approach.”
He also stressed that the visit was a “learning opportunity” for the EDA. North Carolina was one of 12 sites “randomly chosen” as part of its whistle-stop tour to get a “view on the ground,” but it’s not part of the merit review process, he told the 50-strong crowd gathered at Johnston Community College’s Workforce Development Center located adjacent to Novo’s campus.
“We’re excited to hear about your plans and next steps, but neither myself nor my colleagues here are part of this selection process. We need to do a fair and open competitive process.”
Equity is a priority
That didn’t stop state officials from turning on the charm offensive.
Among the emerging themes: North Carolina’s continued economic growth in recent years, largely due to the region’s surging biopharma industry, and its underlying commitment to promoting diversity and equity.
In 2021 alone, the state saw around 23,000 jobs and $10 billion in capital investments, North Carolina Department of Commerce secretary Machelle Sanders touted. Of that, the life sciences represented $4 billion in investments and more than 4,800 jobs. Top investors included FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies ($2 billion), Amgen ($550 million), Thermo Fisher Scientific ($350 million) and Abzena ($213 million).
“That doesn’t come easily,” Sanders said, speaking directly to the EDA officials in the room. “It comes from collaboration and partnership with stakeholders across the state.”
Specifically, she singled out the NCBiotech-led plan that is comprised of seven “distinct but synergistic” projects, with a heavy focus on supporting associated training programs. The coalition includes North Carolina Central University and a collaborative of other NC HBCU’s; the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, which is North Carolina’s Historically American Indian University; the North Carolina Community College System and a network of community colleges across the state; First Flight Venture Center; some of NC’s leading life sciences research universities; East Carolina University and the University of North Carolina Wilmington in support of regional cluster programs across eastern NC; and the North Carolina Department of Commerce.
“Our plan has strategies that invest in production, supply chain, and all the critical technologies and people,” Sanders said. “I’m confident that North Carolina can be a model for the nation.”
Sara Imhof, Ph.D., NC Biotech’s senior director of precision health, said one of the state’s key assets upon which the coalition built its proposal was its training programs and institutions.
“Our state’s community college system is a backbone to our success,” she said. “People who have a high school degree can come in, get a certification, and in a handful of months start a career at a bio manufacturing plant all the way through our universities.”
Loren Limberis, Ph.D., director of the Eastern Region Pharmaceutical Center and an assistant professor of engineering at ECU, is also part of the coalition. The group is focused on teaching students and current pharmaceutical employees advanced manufacturing techniques. Should the proposal win, he said, the funding would allow its program to expand from five counties to 13, nine of which are categorized as being in “persistent poverty” by EDA standards.
“It puts it in perspective,” he said.
Private sector is on board
Members of the private sector are also in support.
The discussion took place at the Novo Nordisk campus. Since 1996, the Danish diabetes drug maker has been a player in the region and now operates three manufacturing facilities in Clayton and Durham. In 2019, it announced a $1.8 billion expansion at its Clayton site, creating 700 jobs and doubling its workforce.
It also supports a $27 million program led by North Carolina State University aimed at sponsoring collaborative research and training in biomanufacturing.
“We’ve already expanded eight times in North Carolina and put billion dollars in our API facilities,” said Novo’s Vice President of Public Affairs Jennifer Duck. “We want to do more.”
Novo employs around 1,200 people in North Carolina and nearly 6,000 in the U.S.
“The market is not going to change, and our commitment to North Carolina is not going to change,” she continued. “We can grow our investments and attract other companies and build those kinds of relationships, where we’re sharing each other’s ways. To me, it’s a win-win-win.”
The time is right
William Bullock, NCBiotech’s senior vice president for economic development and statewide operations, emphasized the region is not an overnight success story.
It started back in 1959 when former Governor Jim Hunt established the Research Triangle Park on 7,000 acres anchored by three proximate and prominent research universities — Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and NC State.
Then in 1984, NCBiotech was formed as a catalyst to grow North Carolina’s strengths. Today, it supports 790 life sciences companies and 2,500 supporting businesses, along with 224,000 jobs.
Still, he said, more work needs to be done to meet the high demand for qualified talent.
“This is just absolutely the right time to get this challenge from EDA,” he said. “We’re ready to knock it out of the park. We just need to build a higher level of awareness and increase accessibility for people. We’re going to do this. We can just do it much faster [with this award].”
EDA’s $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge is the marquee of EDA’s American Rescue Plan programs that aim to boost economic recovery from the pandemic and rebuild American communities, including those grappling with decades of disinvestment.
(C) N.C. Biotech Center