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Money, Jobs & Research: What the Biotech Industry Really Means to NC

A conversation with Sam Taylor, president of the N.C. Biosciences Organization.

By Stephanie Soucheray

At the end of July, biotechnology industry leaders from across the state gathered at GlaxoSmithKline for a summit called to discuss the biopharmaceutical industry’s economic impact on the state. They mingled and listened to speeches by Sen. Kay Hagen and Speaker of the House Thom Tillis lauding the biotech industry as vital to the state’s economy. They also heard a panel discussion on the biotechnology economic sector moderated by Sam Taylor. Taylor is the president of the North Carolina Biosciences Organization (NCBIO), the trade association for the state’s life-science industry. Unlike the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, NCBIO is not funded by the state; it lobbies and does advocacy work for its members, some of the largest companies in North Carolina.

Sam Taylor, Head of NCBIO

Sam Taylor, president of NCBIO

North Carolina Health News asked Taylor a few questions about doing bioscience research and manufacturing in a post-recession North Carolina. From job creation to the latest legislative session, Taylor answered our questions about the future of life-science research and manufacturing in the Tar Heel State.

NCHN: You’ve been with NCBIO since its inception in 1994. What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen in the last 20 years?

Taylor: The size of the community. Back in 1994, I’m just guessing, but there were probably 20 to 50 biotech life-science companies in North Carolina. Now there are multiple hundreds, probably north of 500 companies. Those companies, depending on what you’re counting, directly employ 55,000 people, and indirectly employ another 220,000 to 230,000 people.

The state’s Biotechnology Center was founded in the 1980s, and had been in business 10 years when the community realized the Biotech Center could be an attractive supporter with grants and loans and research, but could not advocate for the industry or lobby for its members because they were funded by the state. Legislators don’t like to be lobbied by people they pay to do other things.

In 1994, five to 10 people in the industry came to me [Taylor was an associate at a law firm at the time] to set up a trade association. Now we have 150 to 160 members and a half million-dollar budget. Our members are companies like GSK, Merck, United Therapeutics, BASF and Nova Nordisk.

NCHN: What happened to those employment numbers after 2008? Did NCBIO suffer from the recession the way other sectors did?

Taylor: We were one of the few sectors that grew out of the recession, and we were the only sector to add jobs. We have an economic impact of $60 billion annually, and we’re the fourth-largest bioscience cluster in the country. That sort of impact gives people confidence, and that’s why the sector is continuing to grow.

That being said, different segments grow at different times. Clinical-research organizations grow very quickly; pharmaceuticals don’t. But all these companies support a common labor pool and research base. Because of our general growth, we are growing and are expected to continue to grow. What policymakers want to do is create jobs and attract investment, and you can only do that in industries that are growing across the nation and across the world.

NCHN: Job creation has been a huge discussion when it comes to state and national economic recovery. But what sort of jobs does the life-science sector create in the state? Aren’t they mostly specialized jobs for Ph.D.s? Are there any jobs for the Joe Schmoes of North Carolina?

Taylor: Oh, yes; there are absolutely jobs for everyone. When it comes to doing research or running clinical trials, those are usually jobs that have to be held by people with an M.A. or a doctoral degree, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to support those folks. And the research centers themselves have to be filled by people with administrative skills, for example. There’s also the supply chains research centers create. There are many more jobs in the manufacturing and service-provision area, and they go to a person with less than a doctoral training.

We are primarily a cluster of manufacturing. We have a large research center here, with GSK and Syngenta. But we have enormous manufacturing here – Merck in Durham, Pfizer in Sanford, Novartis in Holly Springs, Baxter Healthcare in Marion – and all of these are manufacturing operations. We have gone to a lot of trouble and expense to create a workplace training available to people looking for a second career. In 2000, we worked with the Golden LEAF Foundation, NC Central, NC State and community colleges to create training facilities. We spent $20 million for those programs. That’s ongoing. Our system is vertically integrated, so anyone can get training, step out, get more training and move up. In the 2000s, we took a huge step in opening the door for manufacturing professionals. Enrollment has increased dramatically over the years.

We had asked that they restore funding for these programs in this year’s budget. We did not get that funding.

NCHN: In terms of this year’s budget, what’s your opinion on what’s happening in the General Assembly toward your industry?

Taylor: I think that what we’re seeing is a different philosophy of government; we’re not seeing a change of perception of life sciences. They would say their priority is the right sizing of government; they believe we’ve been spending beyond our means in North Caroline for some time. That’s all a matter of degree and perspective, and not my prerogative to make those judgments. We feel like we were treated well, and the value of the industry was recognized in the budget.

Speaker Tillis has been a stalwart supporter of the industry. In their original budget, the Senate had proposed a 50 percent cut of Biotech Center funding and the House budget proposed full funding. In the final budget, [they] compromised and split the difference. Tillis has frequently sought out our opinions. I consider him a person who understands and has given a lot of thought to life sciences.

NCHN: So what’s next for the life sciences in North Carolina?

Taylor: We do have tremendous competition nationally and internationally as we continue to attract bio-manufacturing and life-science facilities, pharmaceutical and industrial companies to our sector. That is going to require continued focus on getting the right information to those companies that are expanding at the right time. We’ve had varying levels of success with that, historically.

The other thing we need to do is grow our small-company sector, using our universities as the economic engines that they can be. We do not have a strong technology transfer system in North Carolina. Most everyone would agree we are not getting the intellectual property and capitol that’s held in our universities out in the private sector. That’s the most important thing that our association will be working on in the next year [to] year and a half. We want to see some new models to try to open the flow of intellectual capital and accelerate the commercialization of university technologies.

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