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A bold vision for biotech

By E. Norris Tolson
For the Salisbury Post
It’s likely that nothing has defined North Carolina’s 25-year history of biotechnology growth more than its audacity.
First, it was a bold move when Gov. Jim Hunt stared the state’s struggling economy square in the eyes and rallied a group of civic, academic and business leaders to challenge the 10-percent unemployment of that time. There were signs that tobacco, furniture and textiles were nearing the limits of their life spans as economic drivers for this state. Doing nothing was an option ó but a poor one.
Money wasn’t growing on trees then either. But, committed to a future that would be built on a foundation called biotech, they scraped enough together to establish the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.
Nobody had done anything like that ó not in California, not in Massachusetts, not in Maryland or Georgia. As leaders elsewhere were trying to lure car manufacturers, North Carolina was banking on biotech ó an investment with no guarantees in an industry with no history.
Today, the realization of that dream accounts for 520 companies employing 57,000 people. Those companies, plus the business they create for other N.C. firms, put $45.8 billion into the state economy every year and pay $1.4 billion in state and local taxes annually. To the surprise of many, we’re one of the top-three biotech states in the nation.
So it’s only fitting that an entrepreneur of David Murdock’s vision would make his bold investment in the North Carolina Research Campus. After all, we educated the first public-university students in the nation. We were first in flight. And nobody has done anything like this $1.5 billion Kannapolis project.
It’s the first such project to draw from universities across the state, and the first to shuffle academic and industry scientists in the same labs. Here, scientists and farmers, physicians and food companies are teammates. This effort is unprecedented.
Its superconducting magnet, the first in the world to pack 950 megahertz, enables Kannapolis scientists to analyze molecular structures in greater detail than ever before ó and to explain links involving nutrition, genes and health. The David H. Murdock Research Institute has launched a grand analysis of how genes and environment work together to affect human health and disease.
Even the staff is decorated with firsts ó Duke geneticist Simon Gregory, who recently joined the DHMRI, spent 10 years in the United Kingdom leading the team that sequenced the largest human chromosome. (That would be chromosome 1, of course).
It’s interesting that even as North Carolinians are becoming ever-more accustomed to this kind of audacity, some people still don’t seem to get the importance of this business segment. The New York Times, in a June 11 story written from Kannapolis, ended the article about cities’ battles to lure biotech by quoting a critic who said that the Research Campus may not “align with the interests of the state.”
Actually, it’s aligned very well with the interests of the state. After all, North Carolina has a proud history at the front of the line.
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E. Norris Tolson is president and CEO of the N.C. Biotechnology Center.

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