RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C.—As the life sciences industry continues its record-setting growth rate in the Tar Heel state, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, a private, nonprofit corporation founded by the state General Assembly to support biotechnology research in the region, is building an addition to its Research Triangle Park headquarters.
Construction recently began on the four-story, 20,000 square-foot addition, which will support job creation initiatives in biotech leadership, entrepreneurship, K-12 education, workforce training, business development and university research programs, in addition to welcoming an estimated 35,000 visitors annually. Approximately 200 people have been employed by the project, which will be completed in the fall of 2010.
"We have the potential to create an additional 65,000 to 70,000 jobs by 2020 as we develop new applications of biotechnology right here in North Carolina," says E. Norris Tolson, president and CEO of the center.
The center was created in the early 1980s after North Carolina legislators, grappling with nearly double-digit unemployment rates, commissioned a study to determine how North Carolina could ensure long-term economic benefits from biotechnology. The year-long study concluded that North Carolina needed a private, nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to biotechnology development.
"At that time, our state economy was dominated by agriculture, textiles and furniture, and 'biotech' was a word people didn't understand and had trouble saying, because science and technology had a much slower development process than the IT explosion," Tolson says. "Right after our government created this center, the pharma business sort of took off like a rocket worldwide. Few people in our state had the skills to work in this industry. We knew we could not grow a cluster without a qualified workforce. We believed strongly—as our policymakers did, and still do—that biotech could have a wonderful economic effect on North Carolina's future, so we set out to work with the industry and our educational system to create a world-class model for worker training in the biotech and life sciences world."
The state legislatures then established the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, headquartered in Research Triangle Park but with several other offices across the state, as the world's first government-sponsored organization dedicated to developing the biotechnology industry. The center receives nearly all of its funding from the General Assembly, and is not a site for laboratory research or company incubation, but rather, an organization that works to strengthen the research capabilities of North Carolina's companies and universities, Tolson points out.
"We do not do research at our center," Tolson explains. "We're also not an industry lobbyist group, but we are industry-friendly and understand the elements of business development and activities. Our business is creating wealth by generating jobs through start-up companies and through expansion of existing businesses that are engaged in life sciences. We invest in research and technology out of our very prolific university system and make loans. We also facilitate partnerships through public dialogue that links some of the industry's issues back to the state."
To date, the center has provided about $16 million in financial assistance to 92 early-stage biotechs and helped those companies attract more than $1.2 billion in funding from other sources. It has also helped to recruit, retain and expand leading biotechs such as Biogen Idec, Diosynth RTP, Merck & Co. Inc. and Novozymes, which are collectively responsible for thousands of high-paying jobs.
Education is also an important mission of the center, and it believes that life sciences education should start early. The center has sponsored summer workshops on biotechnology for more than 1,250 teachers of school-aged children in North Carolina.
"We estimate that we have been able to impact about 500,000 students in North Carolina through our teacher workshop training program," Tolson says. "Each year, there are people on waiting lists, trying to participate in the program. Teachers receive all of the items they need to be able to teach their workshops and labs from the center, at no cost to them, with no impact on their school or school district. This is an effort we are very proud of, because many students gain sophistication from their experience that influences them to work in the biotech field, or at least be knowledgeable about some of the things they might read in a newspaper."
The center has also invested more than $76 million in North Carolina universities to recruit 50 faculty members, purchase multi-user research equipment and sponsor more than 450 research projects. For every $1 invested in research projects by the center, the universities have gained about $14 in federal grants. In addition, the center has helped to triple enrollment at the state's six historically minority universities by granting $8 million in special appropriations to improve the institutions' biotechnology programs.
"We're engaged in almost every facet of our state's education system, from scholarship programs for undergraduate students that enable them to do research at their universities, to fellowships, to funding of post-doctorate programs that encourage people to work in the industry so they can see what the real world is like," Tolson says.
The center's work has had a profound impact on North Carolina's booming biotech industry, not just in Research Triangle Park, but also across what was once a mostly rural state, Tolson says. Since the center opened in 1984, the industry has grown from a handful of companies to more than 520 companies and almost 60,000 jobs with an average salary of more than $69,000, he points out. To date, the center has invested more than $200 million in state monies to develop biotechnology statewide.
A number of pharmaceutical companies have headquarters or manufacturing operations in a one-hour radius of Research Triangle Park, but statewide, other aspects of biotechnology take center-stage, Tolson says.
"Research Triangle Park is no question one of the greatest life sciences clusters in the world, but we see opportunities outside of what's happening there," Tolson says, "areas like marine and agricultural biotechnology and biomanufacturing, which are cropping up in regions across the state. So while it's true that the important origins of our state's biotech industry were in Research Triangle Park, we see the entire state as a biotech cluster."
Despite the fact that most state budgets have been slashed in the economic downturn, North Carolina's lawmakers continue to support its growing biotech industry, Tolson adds. From 2001 to 2006, the state's biotech-based industry grew 18.6 percent—three times the national rate, and five times the rate of the state's private sector, he adds.
"To their great credit, our legislators—on both sides of the aisle—have the ability to think long-term," Tolson says. "They think broadly about the impact this industry can have on human health, and they take a balanced approach to developing not only the science, but the business in this state. We have established a target to create another 75,000 new jobs in biotechnology in the next 10 to 15 years. If we succeed, we could have another half-million people in North Carolina working in some capacity in the life sciences and biotech world. With our population forecasted to increase to 12 million, our policymakers understand how important this is. With this expansion, we will be able to achieve that."
With a price tag of $10.4 million, the center's addition was funded with a $1 million gift from the Biogen Idec Foundation's Transformational Grants in Science Education initiative, and with leadership gifts from the Duke Energy Foundation, Pharmaceutical Product Development Inc. (PPD) and the Triangle University Center for Advanced Studies Inc. Charlotte, N.C.-based architectural firm Perkins+Will created the plans for the addition. The expansion will carry a LEED Silver designation for excellence in sustainable design.
Research Triangle Park continues its impressive evolution
Research Triangle Park (RTP) was founded by a committee of government, university and business leaders as a model for research, innovation and economic development and a way to change the struggling economic composition of North Carolina. Located in the center of the Raleigh-Durham region, the "triangle" from which RTP was named is formed by the geographic location of the region's three highly regarded educational, medical and research universities—the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University and North Carolina State University. RTP also draws on the intellectual capacity of a host of other community colleges and higher education institutes. Together, these institutes create knowledge assets and provide a steady supply of trained scientists, engineers, managers, and technicians to the region's workforce.
Since it was established, RTP has witnessed a steady and stable increase in the number of companies and employees. Currently, there are 136 research and development facilities in RTP. More than 37,600 people work in RTP with combined annual salaries of over $2.7 billion. The average salary in the park is $56,000 annually, nearly 45 percent larger than the regional and national average.
Companies represented in RTP include IBM, Nortel Networks, GlaxoSmithKline, Cisco Systems, Ericsson, BASF, Eisai, Biogen IDEC, Credit Suisse and Syngenta. In addition, a number of U.S. federal agencies have a presence in the park, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the U.S. Forestry Service.
More than a location and an engine for the economic growth, RTP has been a center of innovation. It is home to winners of the Nobel and the Pulitzer prizes, as well as recipients of the U.S. Presidential Award and National Foundation Awards. Some of the most profound discoveries of the 20th century have been influenced by scientists and researchers working in RTP, including the invention of the Universal Product Code, 3D ultrasound technology and Astroturf. Among the most significant of RTP accomplishments was the discovery of Taxol, hailed by the National Cancer Institute as the most important new anti-cancer drug of the past 15 years, and AZT, a drug used to fight HIV-AIDS.
RTP is managed by the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina, a nonprofit organization founded in 1959. The foundation is responsible for the overall management of the Park as well as ensuring that the regulations developed by the park's founders to protect the natural environment and aesthetics of RTP are preserved.