Editor’s note: Bill Bullock, NCBiotech Senior Vice President, Economic Development and Statewide Operations.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – A coalition of partners from across North Carolina, led by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, recently submitted a federal Economic Development Administration Build Back Better Regional Challenge grant Phase 2 proposal that marks a milestone in our state’s economic evolution.
It had a big name, and a big purpose: “Accelerating Life Science Manufacturing to Create Economic Resilience and Promote Equity in Distressed North Carolina Communities.”
The seven projects outlined in this proposal provide a roadmap to the next big inflection point in North Carolina’s life sciences manufacturing evolution.
But why now, and how did we get here?
North Carolina has a unique legacy of making large, sustained investments in the life sciences. The creation of the Research Triangle Park more than 60 years ago was an inflection point, enabling the state’s transition to a technology-based economy. This major investment signaled a new age of innovation that positively impacted traditional industries like textiles, furniture, and agriculture, and was ahead of its time in appreciating the value of clustering diverse but synergistic new industries like biotechnology and information technology.
RTP is a model for visionary cluster-based economic transformation that demonstrates the significant impact this type of investment can have not only regionally, but with the potential to catalyze change across an entire state. However, it is important to acknowledge that change on this scale does not happen overnight, as investments to reposition economies can take decades to come to fruition. The evolution of North Carolina as a manufacturer of textiles and furniture and tobacco to being a global leader in life sciences manufacturing and, yes, innovation, offers a case in point.
At the genesis of the biotechnology sector in the early 1980s, NCBiotech was created in 1984 as the first state-funded nonprofit of its kind, based on a recognition of the potential impact of the life sciences on North Carolina’s economy.
Over the last 38 years, NCBiotech has supported growth of North Carolina’s life sciences community in a myriad of ways including financial support of university research through grants, emerging companies through loans, plus significant investments in economic and workforce development.
Since the founding of NCBiotech, North Carolina’s life sciences landscape has grown consistently and significantly, especially in manufacturing. By the early 2000s, North Carolina’s life sciences manufacturing cluster had grown to the point of requiring a big investment in talent to keep up. In 2001, NCBiotech partnered with the North Carolina Community College System to create the BioWork certificate program, which remains a best practice in specialized life sciences manufacturing training to this day.
Then, in 2003, the Golden LEAF Foundation made a $60 million investment to create what is now known as NCBioImpact. NCBioImpact supported training programs including the Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center (BTEC) at North Carolina State University, the Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE) at North Carolina Central University, and the specialized education and training resources of BioNetwork at the state’s vibrant community colleges. This investment in talent not only created the world’s most comprehensive biomanufacturing education and training capability, but also fueled the next 20 years of life sciences manufacturing growth in North Carolina.
Today, North Carolina’s life sciences manufacturing cluster boasts 136 companies that employ nearly 32,000 North Carolinians. Since the beginning of 2020, leading life sciences companies including Eli Lilly, FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies, Amgen, Astellas Gene Therapies, Grifols, Novo Nordisk, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Biogen, Merck, and others have expanded life sciences manufacturing operations in North Carolina, announcing investments of over $7 billion and the potential to create more than 7,000 new jobs. Additionally, there are another 28 life sciences manufacturing companies actively considering North Carolina for growth, with the potential to add up to another $3.5 billion in investment and 5,500 new jobs on the horizon.
While unprecedented, this rapid growth of life sciences manufacturing in North Carolina is not surprising. With our 60 years of purposeful attention to developing a specialized ecosystem that supports this sector, we are amidst a global bio-revolution where the integration of biology, engineering, and data science is taking center stage in helping humanity address its greatest challenges around food security, energy, health, and climate. And while innovation and communities that nurture creativity are always going to be central to our capacity to adapt, the COVID pandemic has reminded us that our ability to safely and efficiently translate good ideas into products and services is essential. The world is becoming ever more reliant on the bioeconomy, bringing with it a need for more focus on the processes, people, and places that accelerate life sciences manufacturing and bring product innovations to the masses.
In fact, RTP was founded on this idea: harness the innovative potential of three local world-class research institutions by building the world’s largest research park in their midst, providing the industrial capacity to translate those innovative technologies and ideas into products and services.
RTP leverages a basic tenet of cluster development strategy: that groups of companies gain a competitive advantage through proximity and interdependence in synergies of innovation and talent. While a flat interconnected world has challenged this premise over the past few decades, the pandemic and the risk brought about by geo-political uncertainty have put a spotlight on the value of integrated local and regional industry clusters anchored by hubs of innovation and knowledge surrounded by spokes of talent and suppliers.
So why now? After all, North Carolina’s life sciences manufacturing and discovery cluster is thriving, so why push for the next big investment in our state?
To answer that question, we must consider three things:
- The remarkable growth of North Carolina’s life sciences manufacturing cluster has created high demand for qualified talent.
- We have recently witnessed an enlightened recognition of the value that comes in building a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workforce.
- The pandemic has disproportionately impacted traditionally distressed communities and historically excluded or overlooked populations.
The NCBiotech-led BBBRC proposal addresses all three of these factors and creates a platform to drive transformational change for North Carolina’s life sciences manufacturing capability.
North Carolina needs to fill an additional 12,000 life sciences manufacturing jobs in the coming years. And the only way to do that is to expand the pipeline of qualified talent. Diversifying the life sciences workforce is North Carolina’s only hope for meeting this rapidly growing demand for specialized talent. And it’s the right thing to do. Consider the fact that, 38% of North Carolina’s life sciences companies operate in Durham County, where Black Americans hold just 20% of the life sciences jobs, yet constitute 36% of the population.
New efforts like the OneTen initiative, which aims to advance one million Black Americans who lack a four-year degree over the next 10 years, are steps in the right direction, but we need to do more. Careers in life sciences manufacturing offer the potential to bring economic equity to distressed communities across North Carolina, both urban and rural, due to the relatively low barriers to entry and average wages of $102,000, which is nearly twice the state’s average private-sector wage.
The NCBiotech BBBRC proposal takes a cluster-based approach to deploying seven individual but integrated projects across the spectrum from innovation to workforce and community development, to job creation, with a focus on distressed communities and historically excluded populations.
This proposal is built upon the hard work and collaborative efforts of dozens of partners from across North Carolina, including universities, community colleges, governments, nonprofits, agencies, and industry. Over the coming weeks, NCBiotech will share detailed descriptions of the proposal, its projects, leaders, partners, goals, and aspirations.
This bold grant proposal presents a unique opportunity for yet another historic investment in North Carolina’s life sciences manufacturing evolution that will bring prosperity to more North Carolinians and further solidify the state’s position as a global life sciences leader.
(C) N.C. Biotech Center