Conference highlights Research Campus role in emerging biotech economy
By Emily Ford
CHARLOTTE ó The N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis could be the crown jewel in the Charlotte area’s emerging biotechnology economy.
“The best biotech asset really that may exist in the Charlotte region is perhaps the North Carolina Research Campus,” said Kenny McDonald, executive vice president for the Charlotte Regional Partnership.
The $1.5 billion life sciences hub, which focuses on health and nutrition, makes a strong impression on biotech companies considering a move to the Charlotte area, McDonald said. It’s one of three or four must-sees when he’s recruiting.
“They are always blown away,” he said.
Four business and biotech leaders from the Charlotte region spoke Thursday night at “Building a Biotech Economy,” a public conversation sponsored by radio station WFAE and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. More than 200 people attended.
While the Research Campus may become the Charlotte region’s biotech calling card, the 350-acre complex rising from the ruins of an old textile mill still grapples with a lack of venture capital funding and poor name recognition.
The campus needs to do more to market itself, one audience member said.
“This is the most brilliant center I’ve seen in a long time,” said Michael Burg, who owns a marketing firm in Charlotte that specializes in health and wellness. “It’s like the Emerald City in Kannapolis.”
But few people outside North Carolina and even outside the Charlotte region have heard of it, Burg said.
“Is the story being told?” he said.
In part, the campus relies on the eight universities with a presence in Kannapolis to spread the word, said Clyde Higgs, vice president for business development for Research Campus developer Castle & Cooke North Carolina.
“We use our academic partners as a mouthpiece,” as well as recruiters like the Charlotte Regional Partnership, Higgs said.
But visiting the campus has the biggest impact on location consultants for health and life sciences companies, McDonald said.
“While we tell the story (of the Research Campus) all the time, you can’t convey it until you bring people there,” he said.
Higgs said he’s slightly frustrated that not everyone knows about the Research Campus.
“We need to do a better job of pushing the campus in a concerted way,” he said.
Higgs reminded the audience that campus founder David Murdock, the billionaire owner of Dole Food Co., announced plans for the Kannapolis project only three and a half years ago. Since then, two large academic buildings and one of the most complete life sciences laboratories in the world have opened.
The fledgling campus still lacks venture capital funding for start-up companies.
Funding is “one area that we are going to really have to address,” Higgs said.
The campus has partnered with IMAP, or the Inception Micro Angel Fund, to help provide venture capital but needs more.
Attracting venture capital is a “chicken or the egg” situation, Higgs said.
“The venture capitalist says, ‘I need to see more deals coming out of the region,’ but entrepreneurs need more funding,” he said.
While biotech is one of the fastest growing economic development sectors in the United States, it still has a relatively small presence in the Charlotte region. Only about 1.2 percent of all jobs in the Charlotte area, or about 10,000 positions, are connected to life sciences.
By comparison, Charlotte’s banking industry makes up more than 5 percent of jobs.
Compared to well-established biotech clusters like San Diego, Boston and nearby Research Triangle Park, the Charlotte region has some catching up to do.
But the area is developing the infrastructure for a biotech economy, Higgs said.
“I don’t think we are a mature player by any stretch, but we have some good bones to become a player on the biotech field,” he said.
UNC-Charlotte has found a niche in bioinformatics and is making significant growth, said Dr. Robert Wilhelm, director of the UNCC Charlotte Research Institute, which has an office in Kannapolis.
Bioinformatics, or the use of information technology to analyze massive amounts of data and solve complex biological problems, offers “an opportunity to jump over tried and true techniques for establishing drugs,” Wilhelm said.
Bioinformatics could have as much impact in the future as computers had 50 years ago, he said.
The Charlotte region may lure some companies away from biotech clusters where the cost of living and cost of doing business have skyrocketed, McDonald said.
“It’s something to open the conversation with,” he said.
The region has embraced the broadest definition of biotech and is recruiting companies that specialize in everything from pharmaceuticals to biomedical devices to electronic medical records.
Diversity is good for the area, said Marjorie Benbow, director of the N.C. Biotechnology Center’s greater Charlotte office.
Two biotech specialties already show promise, Benbow said, including diagnostic laboratories, with the expansion of LabCorp in Kannapolis, and agricultural biotech, with the development of a six-month growing season for strawberries near Salisbury.
Leaders don’t know today what will emerge as the “hot” area, Higgs said. Even the focus of Research Campus continues to change, he said.
“We thought we’d be this, and here comes PPD,” he said. “Bam, and we’re on the clinical research map all of sudden.”
A major tenant at the Research Campus, Pharmaceutical Product Development Inc. specializes in running clinical trials for drug and medical device companies. The company plans to hire up to 300 people in Kannapolis.
Higgs has even talked to NASCAR teams about research at the campus that might help a driver develop stronger cognition late in a race, he said.
Many sectors of the general economy have a health or biotech component.
“We’re just starting to connect those dots,” Higgs said.