RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – When the U.S. Economic Development Administration pledged $25 million to support North Carolina’s commitment to increased diversity, inclusion and reach for its fast-growing life sciences manufacturing workforce, the federal agency also intended to keep tabs on how that would translate to real life.

Michele Chang, EDA’s deputy assistant secretary for policy, liked what she saw as she led a contingent to North Carolina’s Research Triangle area on October 20.

It was the EDA’s first look at how those recently committed federal tax dollars will parlay into lasting benefits, especially to people who have traditionally missed out on opportunities for the life sciences’ economic and societal advancements that have transformed North Carolina.

 “This is the beginning of an amazing partnership and we’re just really excited to continue it,” Chang told the group of business, academic and community leaders gathered for an exchange of ideas, aspirations and expectations for the Old North State’s share of the federal funding.

The federal grant came from a proposal submitted in March 2022 by a statewide coalition of public and private partner organizations and institutions, led by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. It was a pitch for a chunk of the EDA’s $3 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge program.

Partners in EDA’s BBB grant gather for a group photo. courtesy NC Biotech Center.

The EDA announced in September 2022 that the North Carolina proposal was among 21 projects chosen from 60 applicants nationwide that “made the cut” from the earlier, much larger, Phase 1 national competition. The North Carolina proposal won the $25 million Phase 2 award because EDA reviewers were convinced it will further strengthen North Carolina’s life sciences manufacturing cluster by expanding, connecting, and promoting training and career opportunities to underserved and distressed communities, including historically excluded populations.

Chang said her team has begun traveling around the country as part of a plan to visit all 21 sites that garnered the BBB awards. And she expressed enthusiasm for what she encountered in her North Carolina visit, which included a stop earlier in downtown Durham’s Angier Avenue Baptist Church, at the Durham Children’s Initiative.

Chang was introduced to the participants by State Senator Mike Woodard, who represents the Durham area and leads the life sciences caucus in the General Assembly.

It takes a coalition

“We’re just so happy to see some of the great collaboration that’s happening here,” Chang said. “We really stress equity. That’s our number-one investment priority at the EDA. We want to invest in projects that are focused on underserved populations and communities and are really committed to helping those get access to good opportunities and to good jobs like you all are doing here.

Dominique Oliver and Telicia Hunter talk about Made in Durham with Doug Edgeton.

Dominique Oliver and Telicia Hunter talk about Made in Durham with Doug Edgeton. (NC Biotech photo)

“We recognize that these projects cannot happen with one organization. It really takes a true coalition approach. We’re so pleased to see this collaboration happening here, and we’re really excited to see what you all are going to do with this,” added Chang. “We know that you all have this amazing opportunity, 7,000 jobs that are in this space, and having some great conversations. This is exactly what it’s all about. It’s getting exposure for folks to be able to learn about the opportunities that hopefully will set them on — like you’re saying — to a great career path, not just a job.”

Bill Bullock, senior vice president of economic development and statewide operations at NCBiotech, added some big-picture context.

“It’s insightful to have this kind of 60-40-20 view now,” he said. “Research Triangle Park was formed just over 60 years ago. It was a vision for the state in the late ‘50s when this state had a 40%-or-more poverty rate. So this is really talking about transformation in terms of moving the economy in North Carolina forward. Fast-forward 20 years, the Biotech Center was created in the in the early ‘80s. So this was kind of a stake in the ground — for North Carolina to invest in biotech as an industry. And I want to be really clear — we’re one of many partners in in this ecosystem that have helped make this successful. Fast-forward another 20 years. The state has gotten big investments, very targeted to biomanufacturing. Looking ahead, we’re saying, ‘This is going to be important and we’re really good at it in North Carolina.’ And that investment, all those investments, have really brought us to today.

“And now we need to expand that workforce to a group of folks who practically never see themselves working in the life sciences or even in life sciences manufacturing. That’s one of the challenges that we want to address. I would say, at a national level, we need more places like North Carolina that are building infrastructure around biomanufacturing — the whole concept of the bioeconomy and the impact that life sciences manufacturing can have on the country in terms of the competitiveness we really want to be front-and-center.

“I think we’re well positioned to do that (in North Carolina). So we’re very appreciative of the (EDA) investment. And prepared to work with you to make it successful.”

NC produces many ‘firsts’

Doug Edgeton, president and CEO of NCBiotech, praised the partnerships that enabled the grant success, and reminded participants of the state’s unique attributes. “What you’re learning about today is that we didn’t start from scratch,” he told Chang. “These relationships have been around and been cultivated a really, really long time. And when this opportunity came, people said, ‘Let’s go,’ and came to the table. It wasn’t even another thought.”

“The fact is that North Carolina is the home of the first publicly funded university, the first in flight, the world’s first research park, the world’s first biotech center, and the first group to put forth GMO legislation that became the model for the rest of the country. You’re seeing all these things from our state and with this grant, we will be the first state in the Union to have the opportunity in the biomanufacturing sector to lead a diverse and totally inclusive workforce. And I think you know, in partnership with you, it kind of just brings back to the state motto: Esse quam videri. I’m not very good in Latin, but it means ‘To be rather than to seem.’ And I think that comes out in what you’ve seen here.”

Chang and her EDA colleagues heard specifics from numerous partners in the grant program, detailing how they’ll be using the grant money to propel NC’s life sciences workforce expansion. Among them:

  • Katie Stember, Ph.D., director of NCBiotech’s life sciences economic development team, and ambassador program lead for community engagement on the BBB project
  • Telicia Hunter, Durham Tech Community College life sciences program director and Made in Durham community partner success coach
  • Matthew Meyer, Ph.D., associate vice president for business engagement, national & international partnerships
  • Dominique Oliver, MSW, director of the BULLS program and director of Made in Durhamsystems and initiatives
  • Lorena Patterson, MPA, CEO of Connect@ Corp., co-founder of the Hispanic/Latino Action Coalition, president of the Red Global Mexican Professionals Association and a key partner in the BioBetter connection to the Hispanic community
  • Hunter Martin, a graduate of the BioWorks certificate program, also a military vet now working in the industry at Grifols
  • Hernán Navarro, Ph.D., head of the HBCU Coalition who also leads North Carolina Central University’s BRITE training program
  • William Smith, HBCU/HAIU Collaborative hub leadership connector and director of development for BRITE at NCCU
  • Dana Martinez, corporate affairs lead at Amgen, representing the company’s commitment to support the North Carolina program through its new Raleigh manufacturing site
  • Martha Pritcher, director of human resources at Thermo Fisher Scientific
  • Sara Imhof, Ph.D., NCBiotech’s senior director of precision health, who has served as the coalition leader since its inception
  • Mark Phillips, executive director of the NCBiotech Eastern Office and vice president of statewide operations

[Editor’s note: NCBiotech plans a series of related stories about the key programs covered by this grant].

(C) N.C. Biotech Center