Editorial: Gearing up for biotech

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 25, 2007

While leaders in Kannapolis and Cabarrus haggle over whether the N.C. Research Campus is an “office park,” other biotech campuses are gearing up to either compete with or complement the campus.

Research Triangle Park in particular is trying to shake off its image as “the gray lady of research parks,” as an article in The News & Observer called it recently, and figure out how it fits into the evolving research scene.

Officials at Research Triangle Park envision their facility serving as a gateway for biotechnology inquiries, steering companies toward whichever biotech center in the state best meets each company’s needs. That’s not exactly putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, but it is giving one hen great influence over how much feed the others get.

The state’s two emerging biotech campuses have distinct specialties. Kannapolis’ focus will be on food and nutritional science, as per the interests of founder David Murdock, owner of Dole Foods. Over in Winston-Salem, the Piedmont-Triad Research Park being developed by Wake Forest University is zeroing in on regenerative medicine. With the announcement this month that a researcher there has found a possible alternative to embryonic stem cells, the Winston-Salem park is well on its way to establishing a national reputation.

Site consultants may ultimately decide what role, if any, the Research Triangle Park gets to play in steering companies toward particular campuses. They’re the ones who help companies find locations for new facilities or expansions, and every aspiring biotech campus or center in the country vies for their attention. North Carolina as a whole will fare better if Research Triangle Park, N.C. Research Campus and Piedmont-Triad Research Park work together to raise the state’s profile as a biotechnology hub. Drawing the best minds and the latest technology to the state could have untold benefits.

Several states are thinking the same thing. So are other countries, and this is a global kind of business. Science and technology centers are springing up in major cities in China, as have incubators, and the country’s central government is funding more scientific research. Let’s hope biotechnology doesn’t evolve into another industry that companies take offshore to cut costs.

The Research Triangle Park gives North Carolina a head start against other states and nations. “Granddaddy” might describe the park better than “gray lady.” It got its start in 1959, and the state’s other two campuses reportedly would fit into the Research Triangle Park’s open spaces. It has 7,000 acres, compared to the Kannapolis campus’ 350 acres and Piedmont-Triad’s 230.

Size won’t matter when it comes to the fields these centers are specializing in. Nor will the fact that a bureaucrat somewhere referred to the N.C. Research Campus as an “office park.” What matters is getting the campus up and running as soon as possible, with the best infrastructure and support the community can afford — or can agree on.