N.C. Research Campus ready for jobs to come

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 5, 2009

By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS ó Science is “shovel-ready.”
And few scientific institutes can create jobs as quickly as the N.C. Research Campus.
That’s the message scientists at the campus are pushing as Congress debates an economic stimulus plan that could pump millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs into Kannapolis.
The Research Campus, with its three massive but mostly empty buildings outfitted with some of the world’s best scientific equipment, could launch projects that would put people to work immediately, scientists say.
They just need funding.
“Shovels are already in the ground,” said Dr. Steven Zeisel, director for the UNC Nutrition Research Institute in Kannapolis. “Scientists here are ready right now.”
The stimulus package could include up to $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health, a major source of biomedical and health research funding for the eight North Carolina universities with branches at the Research Campus.
“Every dollar that the federal government gives us for basic research will translate into jobs right here in this community,” said Dr. Mary Ann Lila, director for N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute in Kannapolis.
For every Ph.D.-trained scientist hired in Kannapolis, several jobs that don’t require a doctorate are created as well.
Although campus founder David Murdock constructed the buildings, scientists must secure their own research funding, Lila said.
The $1.5 billion biotechnology complex, which focuses on health and nutrition, seems tailor-made to fit President Barack Obama’s vision for the health research component of the stimulus package, scientists say.
The stimulus would provide money to create electronic medical records, identify biomarkers and prevent disease, all specialties of the Research Campus.
“No place is better poised to do this,” said Dr. Andrew Conrad, chief scientific officer for the campus and co-founder of LabCorp’s National Genetics Institute. “We could win the day.”
Conrad described the stimulus package as a “call to arms” and said scientists, university administrators, political leaders and private industry connected to the campus should work together to secure funding.
The campus will compete with “every science environment worth its salt, trying to get this money,” said Victoria Christian, chief operating officer for Duke University’s long-term medical research study based in Kannapolis.
“There are going to be a lot of chirping mouths,” Conrad said. “It’s incumbent upon us to tell the most compelling story.”
The Research Campus has several selling points, including 350 acres of land and facilities ready to house scientists and their staffs. This public-private biotech partnership features the kind of collaboration that Obama wants to encourage, Conrad said.
If the campus wins funding for a project, “instead of having lawyers draft documents for the first six months, we start now,” he said.
Zeisel has instructed scientists at the UNC Nutrition Research Institute to apply for as many grants as possible by this summer. If they make the June deadline, they will know by November if they can start hiring, he said.
“Every dollar we bring in in research funding, we spend immediately on people and supplies that come from this area and live in this area,” Zeisel said.
The Massachusetts Life Sciences Collaborative has estimated that each grant from the National Institutes of Health creates an average of seven jobs, and that every dollar invested in the NIH generates twice as much in economic output.
The Research Campus can “deliver incredibly,” Conrad said. “Lots of jobs.”
For example, converting written medical records into electronic form for thousands of people enrolled in Duke’s medical research study would require information and technology experts, typists, computer programmers, even survey takers.
Scientists at the Duke Translational Medicine Institute are “poring over” the stimulus package to find grant opportunities “and ways of using them that will ripple into the North Carolina Research Campus and Kannapolis,” Christian said.
Duke wants to create a business incubator in Kannapolis called the Biomarker Factory, which would house the long-term medical research study. Both projects could be candidates for federal funding, as well as new collaborative efforts between Duke and the UNC system, Christian said.
“In any direction standing between Duke and Kannapolis, you can see opportunities, things that you can do with resources and people,” she said. “I couldn’t even count the number of great ideas that come across my desk in a month.”
Making the Research Campus’ five-story centerpiece Core Laboratory available nationwide could result in start-up companies, global collaboratives and networks “all directly flowing into the Kannapolis area,” Christian said.
“It’s just waiting for an opportunity to catch fire,” she said. “We have got to not think small.”
Duke and all the universities at the Research Campus are working to find ways to prevent disease. Obama’s stimulus package includes funding for these efforts.
“Prevention of disease is going to be a major part of his administration,” said Dr. David Nieman, director of the ASU Human Performance Lab in Kannapolis and Boone. “That’s what I am very excited about. Instead of pouring money into the treatment of disease, put it into prevention.”
If Obama’s administration can make exercise science and health and nutrition research new priorities in the federal government, it will create more awareness around the country, Nieman said.
The Research Campus could serve as a model.
“They will look to our campus for leadership and science,” he said.