Friday, May 24, 2024

Round table: Biotechnology, biotech boom

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As North Carolina lands new biotech companies and longtime industry employers continue to grow, a shortage of staff to fill the jobs has evolved. But leaders in biotech education and business are confident new programs and better outreach will meet employers’ needs and advance the careers of  N.C. students and workers.

Central Carolina Community College, CSL Seqirus, The NC Biosciences Organization, North Carolina Biotechnology Center, UNC Charlotte, UNC Nutrition Research Institute sponsored the discussion. It was moderated by Ben Kinney, publisher of Business North Carolina. It was edited for brevity and clarity.

What are some new things happening in bio manufacturing and related industries that North CaroLinians should know about?

EDGETON: For NCBiotech, we have been working on ways to better prepare the life sciences workforce in our state. Part of that effort is via the Federal Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) Build Back Better Regional Challenge (BBBRC) grant. NCBiotech coordinated the request for proposal response among 28 partners spread across
North Carolina. Our state was one of 60 EDA BBBRC awards out of 529 proposals
submitted nationwide. The purpose of this award is to stimulate career opportunities for people in locations that have not historically benefited from employment in the rapidly growing life sciences sector. This is particularly true for eastern North Carolina. The Phase 2 BBBRC award provides about $20 million to the community college system for buying equipment to provide training. Another $5 million will go to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and one Historically American Indian University (HAIU) for more advanced training programs in biomanufacturing. Lastly, NCBiotech will utilize about $1.5 million to create and execute a campaign targeting North Carolina residents to raise awareness about training and career opportunities in this growing field.

One of the big challenges is that many people do not know these jobs exist. If people are aware of the career opportunities, they may not know where to look to secure training or employment.

WAGNER: The Biotechnology Center and the Commerce Department working together did a great job over the last five years bringing a lot of new projects, both expansions of existing and new projects to the area. There’s a lag of two or three years from groundbreaking to hiring. … They’ve got to build these facilities before they start hiring, but (the hiring) is hitting now. What’s happening initially now is companies are just stealing from each other. Employees are moving from one to another. They tend to migrate toward startups. So we really need to work hard to make the pie bigger, so that there are more workers and it’s just not shells moving back and forth. And I think that’s the biggest focus right now.

KEGERISE: The problem John (Wagner) identified around the amount of talent in the area also continues as those companies grow and their expansions come live. We recently completed our own expansion at CSL Seqirus but there is more construction underway. We
have a lot more jobs than we do people in the area. Our solution has been to look at different geographical areas or different partners who we can collaborate with to bring in new talent. We need to think about  how we advertise that the pharmaceutical industry has a variety of different needs and a variety of different jobs. You don’t need to be a chemist or a biologist to have a job in the industry. You can be a finance major, for example, or you could work as a mechanic.

WAGNER: Many people are intimidated by the biotech industry. You don’t need to be a Ph.D. in chemistry, biology or whatever to work. In fact, most of the jobs don’t require a technical degree. We need to get that word out, especially in some of the
underrepresented populations.

SMELSER: Community colleges really can provide some of that service. At Central Carolina specifically, we’ve trained over 300 people through our Biowork program since May of 2020. And the best part of what I get to do is see these people who maybe have some college and they really want a better life for themselves go through this short-term training program to connect to an industry role that is extremely meaningful for them … and gives access to these great paying jobs. 

Bernadette, from a university standpoint, what are you hearing from folks regarding this?

DONOVAN-MERKERT: The state has really supported UNC Charlotte. For example, we opened a new science building that brings research and education together by housing state-of-the-art undergraduate teaching laboratories in chemistry, biology and physics along with research laboratories in which faculty and students from these same disciplines conduct research in the broad area of biomolecular sciences. The building has open spaces and is designed to promote collaborations. We have graduate students conducting research, but undergraduate students as well. We have incredibly strong opportunities for undergraduate research at UNC Charlotte. 

How do biotech entities collaborate with each other and the community?

SMELSER: At Central Carolina, we have instituted a biotech industry leadership team. We are very dedicated to making sure that our trainees have the right skills. We need someone with that expertise to share that information and share it in a way so that we come full circle on it. We go through our curriculum every single year, look for any gaps and then make sure that we’re filling those gaps. This is either with existing equipment that we have or the Build Back Better grant allows us to respond to new technologies, whether it’s automation, or something in the cell and gene therapy space. So having that feedback, that we’re able to really show that we’ve done things, I think that puts us at the forefront of our trainees having the right skills.

EDGETON: By having 10 of our community colleges participating in Biowork, it allows us to have a common platform from which people can learn, get a certificate, and be trained for entry-level jobs. At the same time, we’re turning out 5,200 biological and biomedical degrees each year from our university system. We have another 4,600 or so engineers coming out each year as well. Historically, we’ve been able to meet the workforce needs.
But, in the last four years, we have brought in about 12,500 new jobs, which is great for the state and for anybody who’s looking for a job. As a state, we set up our biotech education a long time ago and have continued to support and grow it. It has been very beneficial in recruiting more companies. North Carolina has a network that’s phenomenal at collaborating as a team in industry, academia, and government. We wouldn’t have gotten the BBB grant had we not already had the training infrastructure and connections formed.

RALLS: It seems like we are collaborating almost every week. At Wake Tech, I like to say we’re tripling down, we’re not just doubling. Over a year ago, we opened the first of what will be four new facilities that have a key biotech or biopharma base. We split out our degree programs into biotech and biopharma. Biotech is in our new Lilly building on the RTP campus. (Built in honor of a $1.1 million contribution from Eli Lilly and Co.) We’re building a really unique biopharma simulated work environment and a new training facility in Holly Springs. The jobs are here, and we have to scale to meet the demand. We’re scaling as quickly as we can, whether it be facilities or degree programs. Our short-term Bioware programs are about 50% larger now than this time last year.

Four years ago biopharma was one of 252 program areas at Wake Tech, now it’s one of 13 career fields. We have a dean for biotech. We’re tripling down in terms of our investment in this area.

Another thing I think that’s really unique here in this region is the ecosystem. We have an early college high school on our RTP campus That is for information and biotechnologies. The biotech students take a community college genetics course their senior year that has been designed in concert within the state that will transfer to N.C. State. So you see the ecosystem kick in whether it’s the public schools, community colleges, universities and the companies coming together to make that happen. I don’t think you find this in other states. 

WAGNER: An implementation group was created back in 2003 or 2004. We’ve continued to meet five times a year with representatives from the Biotechnology Center and community colleges. Several others get together and we talk about topics that could have an impact. We make sure that they’re getting funding for those types of things that they need. So it’s an ongoing communication and coordination. We have the biomanufacturing forum. We meet four times a year and we talk about various topics that are critical to the industry and some of our best practices. John (Kegerise) is one of the seats in the room for CSL Seqirus along with about 12 other large companies. They compete for resources, there’s very little product competition. But they also understand that they need so many common things that
are not intellectual property related and so on that they can help each other out and then we all win. 

KEGERISE: I would also comment on what Lisa touched on a little bit, which is our ability to work with the ecosystem to customize our training. There’s a continuous dialogue between the local educational institutions and industry to say, “Hey, you know, you can get a degree in X, Y or Z.” But from a training standpoint, there are some things we need to prepare folks for the industry — things like aseptic training and best practices. That sort of dialogue between the industry and the educational institutions is what’s going to enable the success of all the infrastructure that’s being built here, right now. Beyond the initial training, training for employees that you’ve already got is important as well. There needs to be a capability to send people that are already employed by your company into a training program to prepare them for the next step in their career. There is amazing opportunity in that as well.

Bernadette, how do you collaborate with folks in the Charlotte region AND with the state?

DONOVAN-MERKERT:  One of the things we have on campus is the PORTAL building and that’s for business partners to actually come to campus. They have office space, they also can use labs throughout the university. They pay a membership fee for access to basically all the facilities on campus as well as the students and faculty to consult with.We also have a biotechnology program, that’s actually a certificate program where a student may be majoring in chemistry or biology and take some additional courses in biotechnology, then they do an internship with a local company.

How are you addressing the workforce shortage? 

EDGETON: Some of the things that we’re focused on include the large population of veterans, who have finished their military careers in North Carolina. We have a program called MOVE, which stands for Military Outreach and Veterans Engagement, for mobilizing our veterans toward careers in the life sciences. About 35,000 people per year finish their military career here in North Carolina. Veterans have been well trained at following protocols and procedures. So, they make great employees for our companies. That’s a program that we’re very proud of and it is just getting started.

Another program we’re proud of is in Greenville. In Pitt County Community College and East Carolina University, there’s the Pharmaceutical Services Network (PSN). It targets students who are graduating from high school from the poorest areas who have no plan to go to college, and no ability to pay for college. NCBiotech teamed up with Thermo Fisher Scientific (a pharmaceutical development and manufacturing company). We give these students a chance to take the PSN training program. Almost immediately after they graduate high school, they go through this certificate program. A week later they’re interviewed by Thermo Fisher. We’re now in our third cohort and there have been about 18 students who went from not having any plans to having a promising career.

KEGERISE: We’re widening the pool of candidates to include more diverse backgrounds. The veteran community is a perfect example. CSL Seqirus has many veterans who are applying right now. Veterans are an extremely good fit for this industry. While maybe they have no explicit biotech background, they always come in with an extremely high learning agility from the training that they’ve got from a military background. They’ve been under various scenarios of intense pressure in a time crunch.Biotech manufacturing comes with its set of circumstances that can be somewhat stressful. The veteran hires deal with that stress quite well from day one.

WAGNER: The broader pharmaceutical industry, including biotech for decades, had the luxury of doing what I call passive recruiting. They posted a job and they’d get 1,000 applicants. That has changed … and they have to figure out a different way of recruiting and reach populations that may not be looking at our industry. We’re working on some options, which I don’t want to get into because it’s early … but it’s about how collectively as an industry we can reach (potential employees.) 

RALLS: So many of the people who live around the facilities have no idea what happens
in those facilities. And if you can’t see it, you can’t see it. And a lot of times these are not things that you see when you’re considering what are the opportunities that are in front
of you.

SMELSER: Scott, I grew up 30 minutes from the Pfizer site in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and while I had brand recognition of Pfizer, I had no idea what jobs were there. At Central Carolina, we are uniquely very word of mouth and community based. Trust has been a huge part of the way that we operate. Specifically, our president, Dr. Lisa Chapman, has reached out to faith- based leaders and made sure they can share the opportunities of CCCC and area employers. We’ve been meeting with all types of community leaders, sharing some of the opportunities so that even if they do have brand recognition of Seqirus or Pfizer or our other companies, they know how they can get to jobs, and they know what those jobs look like. So being able to operate from a place of relationship building and trust has been a huge part of what we’re doing at Central Carolina.

DONOVAN-MERKERT: We are really committed to encouraging young people to pursue studies in the sciences. One of the programs we have is the ACS (American Chemical Society) Project SEED Program. This is a program that brings high school students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to campus during the summer months and provides them with a stipend to conduct research in faculty labs. Another example is the Charlotte Research Scholars program, which funds about 50 undergraduate students to conduct research each summer. In addition to conducting research, students have the opportunity to participate in professional development workshops, and they present the results of their research at a campuswide conference at the end of the summer. We also have several undergraduate research programs supported by the National Science Foundation. 

Along with new ways of bringing in workers, what can be done to create a very diverse group of workers? 

EDGETON: Part of the Build Back Better grants focuses on internships and apprenticeships. If you can get people placed in an internship or apprenticeship, they can see what
a biotech career is like. That’s a big first step

I am confident we can increase workforce diversity and bring in people who have historically not seen themselves having a career in science. United Way partnered with Novozymes to build a mobile innovation lab, which is just a van with a small learning lab that can be taken to different schools to show experiments and introduce people to science at an earlier age.

We need to find young people who are maybe in their high school years and are looking for where to go next. We are finding ways to connect with those people and help build this pipeline of future employees.

SMELSER: I think it comes down to accessibility, and we’re operating from a place of inclusion. In terms of accessibility, we could be talking about access to high tech equipment, like Scott mentioned earlier, and at Central Carolina, we’re working to build our capacity. Right now, we’re working with our partners at the Capstone Center, and doing some training that we don’t currently have the capacity to do (on campus). A former Magneti Marelli auto manufacturing plant will become the new E. Eugene Moore Manufacturing and Biotech Solutions Center. So not only will we have a place for biotechnology to live, we’ll also have a place to train all of the different roles, like maintenance technicians that you mentioned earlier. Automation technicians are another role that we’ll have there.

I’ve got to be able to respond to a rotating manufacturing shift schedule so that people can have access to these training programs, whether they’re an adult looking to transition, whether they work at Seqirus and are looking to further their education. They need to actually be able to have that as an option for them in order to move forward. We need night classes, morning classes. An attitude of inclusion is being flexible, as opposed to being rigid, which excludes people.

RALLS: I think part of who we are as community colleges is we’re very inclusive. But we have to reach out more and we have to help students who might live in one part of our community, get to the jobs that are in the other part of the community. So transportation is part of that. Also, one of the things we’re really focused on at Wake Tech is a philosophy we call ladder economics. What we mean by that is you have to kind of chunk the opportunities or show rung by rung of how to get there.

We have a nondegree program that we’re offering free of charge. Someone may think, “I can carry eight credits into a biopharma degree. If I get a job (in that field) I can finish that degree. But then I could get an apprenticeship while I’m doing that degree possibly.”

KEGERISE: Diversity is foundational. The life sciences industry is built off of and sustained by innovation. Diversity of thought drives innovation, and frankly, we won’t survive as an industry without it. What’s exciting to me is if we think about all the previous questions you’ve asked us today, elements of diversity came out in every part of the discussions. We talked about veterans, we talked about access to education. We talked about reaching out to underprivileged communities. All within this discussion today, before you even asked that question, which tells me it’s at the forefront of the industry’s mind. 

DONOVAN-MERKERT: About 40% of the students at UNC Charlotte are from underrepresented or underserved populations. We have the students, and we provide opportunities for them to succeed and to see that they are welcome in the sciences. We provide lots of support for students, such as tutoring and peer leaders. Many students are taught in active learning classrooms, where they immediately get to practice what they have learned. Many courses incorporate research experiences in which students work on individual or team projects of their choosing. In some courses, the instructors ask the students: “What research do you want to do?” They then design the course around the type of project that the students are interested in.

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