Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Wa Po: Biotech Surge Shows Manufacturing Still Key to Economy

In N.C., A Second Industrial Revolution
Biotech Surge Shows Manufacturing Still Key to U.S. Economy

By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 3, 2007; A01

PITTSBORO, N.C. -- Until the late 1950s, the low-slung brick building in the center of this minuscule town was home to the Kayser-Roth hosiery mill. Some 400 workers tended to clattering looms, churning out pantyhose.

"It was the best employer in town," said Nancy May, a former worker.

The hosiery mill is gone now, along with much of the Carolina textile industry -- a casualty of the global reordering that has concentrated production in Asia and Latin America. But the old brick building is still here and still making products -- albeit modern varieties that could scarcely have been imagined a half-century ago: Today, the site is occupied by a biotechnology company, Biolex Therapeutics.

Inside, 90 workers harness expensive laboratory equipment and a plant called duckweed, a bane to local ponds, to develop a drug for a serious liver ailment. Even the lowest-paid lab technician takes home far more than the seamstresses earned. If the start-up succeeds, its product will be substantially more lucrative than pantyhose.

As lawmakers pursue legislation aimed at softening the blow from factory closures, and as the downside of trade emerges as a talking point in the 2008 presidential campaign, it might seem that manufacturing is a dying part of the U.S. economy. But the retooling of this old brick building on Credle Street underscores how, despite its oft-pronounced demise, American manufacturing is in many regards stronger than ever.

The United States makes more manufactured goods today than at any time in history, as measured by the dollar value of production adjusted for inflation -- three times as much as in the mid-1950s, the supposed heyday of American industry. Between 1977 and 2005, the value of American manufacturing swelled from $1.3 trillion to an all-time record $4.5 trillion, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

With less than 5 percent of the world's population, the United States is responsible for almost one-fourth of global manufacturing, a share that has changed little in decades. The United States is the largest manufacturing economy by far. Japan, the only serious rival for that title, has been losing ground. China has been growing but represents only about one-tenth of world manufacturing.

But if the big picture is brighter than many realize, American manufacturing is nevertheless undergoing fundamental change that is exerting enormous pressure on workers.

Imports are rising, now representing a third of all manufactured goods consumed in the country, up from 10 percent in the 1970s.

American exports are rising even faster than imports, but companies face intense price competition, with China, India, Brazil and dozens of other low-wage countries now part of a global marketplace for labor and materials. Manufacturers are redesigning production lines to make them more efficient, substituting machinery for people wherever possible.

So while American manufacturing is not declining, manufacturing employment has been shrinking dramatically. After peaking in 1979 at 19 million workers, the American manufacturing workforce has since dropped to 14 million, the lowest number since 1950.

A stark educational divide has emerged on the factory floor, as skills and training separate winners from losers. In 1973, more than half of all American manufacturing workers failed to complete high school, and only 6 percent attended some college, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. By 2001, nearly half completed high school and one-fourth attended some college.

North Carolina encapsulates the forces remaking American manufacturing. Between 2002 and 2005, the state lost 72,000 manufacturing jobs, about three-fourths in textiles, furniture-making and electronics, according to the North Carolina Commission on Workforce Development. At the same time, the state has become a rising powerhouse in lucrative new manufacturing sectors such as biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and sophisticated textiles.

As they grapple with change, North Carolina's workers and factory owners are helping answer a pressing question: What does the future hold for manufacturing in the United States?
Adapting to a New Market

"We didn't see it coming," the furniture man grimly declared.

Michael K. Dugan once ran Henredon Furniture Industries, which operated a plant in Spruce Pine, a former mining town in the rugged mountains in the western part of the state. There the company made hand-carved wooden bedroom furniture, once employing more than 1,000 people. Many lacked high school diplomas and some were illiterate, yet the factory provided a way for these workers to support families and to acquire modest homes and cars. It paid roughly $14 an hour, plus health and pension benefits.

Henredon's four-poster beds retailed for about $5,000 in the early 1990s, Dugan recalled. A few years later, similar models started showing up from the Philippines for less than $2,000. Now they can be found for $799, produced by workers in southern China who earn as little as 40 cents an hour.

Henredon first trimmed its workforce. Three years ago, it shut down the plant, eliminating the last 350 positions and adding to a wave of layoffs in surrounding Mitchell County, which has had roughly one-fifth of its jobs wiped out since 2000, according to the Employment Security Commission of North Carolina.

Many of the storefronts in Spruce Pine's brick downtown are empty. Restaurants and shops have closed, succumbing to a dearth of local spending power.

"The kids are moving out," said Brenda Smith, a youth pastor at a teen center. "They can't find anywhere to work. There's Wal-Mart, and that's about it."

For 26 years, Phillip Wilson worked at Henredon as a master carver. Now, on most days, he wakes before dawn and drives to his new job -- the 5:30 a.m. shift as a prison guard at the medium-security Mountain View correctional facility. His pay is down 15 percent, forcing him into a second job at a used-appliance store to make ends meet.

Throughout the state, and indeed the nation, laid-off factory workers are typically able to find new jobs but mostly for lower pay. A June 2002 study published by the North Carolina Justice and Community Development Center found that workers who lost manufacturing jobs in 1999 and 2000 were earning 72 percent of their previous salaries six months later.

Furniture-making is typical of the manufacturing sectors that are shrinking in the United States. For many, labor represents a relatively high proportion of total costs, making them vulnerable to foreign competition. If factories cannot automate, they die.

The textile industry has been particularly aggressive in replacing people with machines. A half-century ago, a typical North Carolina textile worker operated five machines at once, each capable of running a thread through a loom at 100 times a minute. Now machines run six times as fast, and one worker oversees 100 of them.

With machines increasingly occupying the center of production, manufacturers want highly trained, literate workers at the controls. To meet the demand and help workers secure jobs, North Carolina has beefed up course offerings at its community colleges.

Three years ago, it set up Bionetwork, a training program based in community colleges, to feed workers into the state's growing biotech sector.

"All of the skills are closely tied to the workplace," said Norman Smit, Bionetwork's recruitment director.

Smit seeks students from declining areas of manufacturing. Given intensive training and a willingness to adapt, a textile or furniture worker can become a better-paid biotech technician, he says. As proof, he points to Regina Whitaker.

Ten years ago, straight out of high school, Whitaker went to work at a yarn texturing plant in Yadkinville, in the Piedmont region. Her mother had worked there for 30 years.

From midnight until 8 a.m., Whitaker tended to whirring machinery, alternately wishing for another job and worrying that she would actually have to find one: Her company was opening plants in China and Brazil and laying people off in Yadkinville.

"I couldn't see spending my life there," Whitaker said.

In January 2003, she enrolled in the first associate degree classes offered in biotechnology at Forsyth Technical Community College. Now 28, she graduated in July 2004 and was hired as a lab technician at Targacept, a biotech start-up in Winston-Salem that was spun off from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Where the tobacco giant had researched the use of nicotine to make people crave cigarettes, Targacept is focusing on the nicotine receptors in the brain to develop drugs for Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia.

Whitaker said her salary is "significantly more" than the $13.40 an hour she made at the yarn factory.

"I'm not struggling now," she said. "Before, it was paycheck to paycheck."
Textile Firm Finds a Niche

Glen Raven Custom Fabrics was another Carolina textile operation whose future seemed in doubt. In the early 1990s, the company was still concentrated on products under siege from foreign competition -- pantyhose, luggage fabric and yarn for apparel. Throughout the Carolinas, other textile companies were vanishing.

Glen Raven managed to endure and prosper by refocusing on specialty industrial fabrics for outdoor furniture, boats and awnings -- expensive goods that require customization, high-end machinery and technical expertise.

Economists suggest this is the future for successful U.S. manufacturers: zeroing in on high-value products that tap America's technological advantages to offset high labor costs. This strategy has fostered a boom in exports of American-made industrial engines and machinery, aerospace gear and pharmaceuticals.

North Carolina has embraced this approach, aggressively pushing biotechnology development. In the past decade, the number of biosciences firms in the state has jumped to 386 from 131, and the number of workers has more than doubled from 20,000 to 47,000, according to the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, a government arm that promotes the industry.

At Research Triangle Park, a sprawling complex outside Raleigh-Durham, Biogen Idec has established one of the larger biomanufacturing facilities in the United States, making sophisticated pharmaceuticals. Entry-level workers with the necessary training earn $27,000 to $35,000 a year. Experienced production workers can make considerably more.

For Glen Raven, the focus on high-technology production has turned its factory floors into lonely expanses. In Norlina, N.C., a red-brick factory just down Route 1 from the town's lone traffic light, 225 people once made pantyhose, pushing baskets of nylon across the floor by hand. Now, 156 workers man computers that control acres of robotic arms and bobbins producing yarn.

The refashioning has positioned Glen Raven to profit from what many portray as the mortal threat to the Carolina textile industry: China now buys growing volumes of the company's products. Last year, North Carolina exported $52 million of textiles and fabrics to China, a fivefold increase from 2003.

Chinese factories increasingly use Glen Raven's fabrics to make sun umbrellas and upholstery for lounge chairs, sending many of these finished goods back across the Pacific to the United States.

The workers at these Chinese factories typically make less in a month than the price of a sun umbrella at an American retailer. Glen Raven's success allows the company to pay its American workers $10.50 to $22 an hour, plus benefits. Even at those wages, labor represents only 5 percent of the overall cost of turning fiber into fabric.

Put another way, the efficiency of the machines that have eliminated jobs at its plants has allowed Glen Raven to pay the remaining workers enough to afford cars, health care and homes. Some of those homes boast patios and lawns now shaded by sun umbrellas made in China using fabric woven just down the road.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A sense of urgency - Speedy and reliable diagnosis for cancer patients grows Bostwick Laboratories

Monday, Sep 10, 2007 - 12:03 AM


From the moment the courier arrives at Bostwick Laboratories, around 6 a.m. most days, the clock is ticking.

Around the United States, and around the world, people are waiting on a diagnosis -- do they have cancer or not?

The answer lies in the packages that are delivered to Bostwick's laboratories and offices in the Innsbrook Corporate Center each morning.

Thousands of tissue samples come to the medical laboratory company every day -- many of them prostate biopsies sent by the company's client physicians. Bostwick Laboratories' job is to analyze those samples and provide a diagnosis.

In a first-floor laboratory in one of the company's two Innsbrook buildings, a team of histotechnologists trained to prepare slices of body tissue for examination by pathologists goes to work preparing the tissue samples. The samples, so tiny they are barely visible, are put through a highly technical, multistep process, including dyeing them and placing them on slides, before going to the company's 25 pathologists -- medical doctors specializing in diagnosing diseases -- for examination.

The aim is to provide a diagnosis to the physicians, and thus to patients, within 24 hours.

"From a patient's standpoint, you want to know as a soon as possible," said Leroy Mell, the company's chief laboratory officer. "You don't want to be sitting around for a week or two waiting for results. The patient comes first."
And when it comes to diagnosing cancer, speed can't mean sacrificing precision. "Our goal is 100 percent accuracy," Mell said.

With those kind of demands, the company's operations are suffused with what Dr. David Bostwick calls "a sense of urgency."

"That's a phrase we use a lot," said Bostwick, an internationally acknowledged expert on prostate cancer who founded the company that bears his name in 1999.

The same phrase could be used to describe the growth of Bostwick Labs. In only eight years, it has expanded from just a handful of employees to a company with 560 employees. In addition to its main offices and laboratories in Henrico County, the company has opened labs and offices in Florida, Arizona, New York and London.

"We receive specimens from as far as Russia, South Africa, Japan, Thailand, and of course, the United States," Bostwick said.

Bostwick came to Richmond to work for a urology practice while he got his business off the ground. The company has stayed here, he said, because of the Richmond area's central location on the East Coast, its low cost of doing business, and the skilled work force.

In March, the company announced a three-year expansion plan that includes investing $4.6 million to expand its laboratories and offices. The company also announced it was hiring about 600 people (about 150 of whom it has hired this year). The expansion plan would bring total employment to around 950.

"We're probably the biggest company in Richmond that you have never heard of," said Gary S. Levine, the company's chief financial officer.

He is only half joking -- most people who get biopsies probably don't think much about what happens to their samples, or who is involved in the diagnosis.

While hospitals -- including the major hospitals that serve the Richmond area -- have their own pathology departments, many physicians at urology centers or other practices rely on outside laboratories for diagnostics.

The laboratory-services industry is anywhere from a $45 billion to $60 billion business in the United States. Two big, publicly traded companies, LabCorp. and Quest, dominate the industry, but there are also about 3,500 smaller players around the country, Levine said.

"It's a highly fragmented industry," he said. "But there is a growth boom. That's driven by two things. Number one, payers are willing to pay more for diagnostics," Also, as baby boomers age, they need more medical tests. "That is what has driven a lot of our growth," Levine said.

Bostwick said the privately held company is on track to reach or exceed $100 million in revenue this year. The company has focused on a niche market within the laboratory services: anatomical pathology, specifically urologic pathology. Most of its business still comes from analyzing prostate biopsies, although the company is expanding into other areas including kidney, gastrointestinal and gynecological diagnostics. The company also has a division that works with major pharmaceutical companies on clinical trials.

Unlike much larger labs, "we don't try to do all things for all people," Bostwick said. "What we have tried to do is narrow our focus into those areas where we have core competencies."
While hospital pathologists often analyze biopsies from about 24 organs in the body, "we focus mainly on urologic pathology," Bostwick said. "With that focus, we are able to maintain a very high level of productivity, accuracy and a quick turnaround time."

That emphasis on focused markets and efficiency enables the company to generate higher profit margins. As a privately held company, it puts its money back into its operations. Also driving its growth is the company's introduction of new types of diagnostic tests that are faster and more accurate than conventional methods.

The company's expansion around the United States and in other countries also has come through an ambitious sales effort driven by Jed D. Fulk, vice president for sales and marketing.
Fulk, a West Point graduate and former U.S. Army officer who joined the company in 2003, is leading the company's charge into new regions and new specialties. He keeps maps in his office marking the areas where the company is introducing sales reps and finding new clients. A self-described workaholic who is usually sending out his first e-mails by 4 a.m., Fulk has a desk full of résumés.

"I'm hiring sales reps," he said. "We have doubled the number of sales reps to over 70 in the country, and by the end of September, we will have over 100."
A lot of the company's growth, Fulk said, can be attributed to physicians' admiration for the man at the top, David Bostwick. Some local physicians confirm that.

"He is trading on his name, which is a well-respected name," said Dr. Sam Graham, co-founder of Urology Specialists of Richmond, who has used Bostwick Labs for diagnostics. "If you ask most urologists around the country, 'Do you know who David Bostwick is?' They will say yes."
Before founding the company, Bostwick was a professor of pathology and urology at the Mayo Clinic from 1991 to 1999. He has written 16 books -- including the best-selling textbook on urologic pathology -- and more than 400 papers.

Bostwick had the idea of starting a laboratory with a 24-hour turnaround in 1985 when he was a doctor at University of Chicago Hospitals. His colleagues there, however, thought the idea was impractical. But Bostwick, who later moved on to the University of Maryland, didn't let go of the idea.

While earning an MBA in the early 1990s, Bostwick wrote his thesis on setting up a laboratory with same-day results reporting.
"We have had the technology for 25 years," but it was never utilized that way, he said.
Graham and Dr. David Wilkinson, chairman of the pathology department at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the company has thrived on providing specialized lab services to physicians who often don't have access to that kind of service in their own communities.
"I think the demand for highly specialized knowledge is growing, and that is where Bostwick Labs has found its niche," Wilkinson said.

In the Richmond area, Wilkinson said, the biggest impact the company is having is driving job demand for workers such as histotechnologists and medical technicians. Those kinds of workers are already hard to find.

"The good news is that should help the salaries of those people, who are very highly trained, very skilled people and probably have been underpaid in many ways," he said.
Although many patients may not recognize the name, Bostwick Labs has earned recognition in the business community. In 2005, the company was named by the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce as the fastest-growing privately held business in the Richmond area.

"We grew 95 percent last year, and are on target to grow 100 percent this year," Bostwick said.
"We expect to grow at doubleor triple-digit rates in the near future."

With that kind of growth, the company is sure to attract investor interest. Executives say the company is considering a public stock offering.

Growing players in the industry also tend to attract buyout offers. While acquisitions might be on the table, Bostwick said a buyout is not.

"I have told the employees we are not for sale," he said. Contact John Reid Blackwell at (804) 775-8123 or

Virginia looking for Israeli bioscience companies

Sep. 10 - The Virginia Israel BioSciences Commercialization Center (VIBSCC) is planning to select five Israeli companies to assist in entering the US market. A delegation will be in Israel in early October to select the companies that will be invited to participate in a special two day Gateway America program held at the VIBSCC in Richmond in December. "This is a fantastic opportunity for Israeli businesses in the bioscience field," said Ralph Robbins, executive director of the Virginia Israel Advisory Board. "The purpose of the VIBSCC is to benefit Israeli bioscience companies through a combination of services that ultimately give them the upper hand when entering the US market.? The VIBSCC comprises part of one of the fastest growing Biotech parks in the U.S. and features a medical center with an award-winning Center of Excellence in the BioTechnology Research Park and the Virginia BioSciences Development Center. Companies that wish to request an interview with the VIBSCC council can receive additional information by visiting

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Virginia Business Magazine on Biotech

Article in the latest Virginia Business on Biotech...

No magic pill

Virginia’s got research centers, startups and even a biotech billionaire. But does the state have enough traction to become a biotech leader?

by Robert Burke
for Virginia Business
September 2007

For boosters of Virginia’s biotechnology industry, the story of Intrexon Corp. reads like a fairy tale. In 2000 it began as a tiny startup in Cincinnati. Three years later Robert Beech took over as CEO, and his search for capital to grow the business led him to Blacksburg. He moved his company there to be near investors. Carilion Health System, the Virginia Tech Foundation and a few others saw potential and gave the company a $925,000 cash infusion.

Fast forward to May. The privately held company received another major boost: a $25 million cash investment from New River Management, a private investment fund managed by Radford-based Third Security LLC. The firm is led by Randal J. Kirk, who earlier this year sold New River Pharmaceuticals to a British company in a $2.6 billion deal that made him a billionaire.

Now Intrexon is in the midst of a hiring spree. It’s filling lab space at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center with researchers bent on developing gene-based therapeutics against tough diseases such as advanced melanoma. Since spring, the staff has swelled from seven employees to 67, and there are plans to double that number by year’s end. Beech says the company wants to begin clinical trials by late this year or early next year. “We’ve got the right partners, the right investors lined up, that I think over time we’re going to have a great company.”
Click to learn more...

Of course, the real test for Intrexon is whether it can truly develop new and effective treatments. “We’ve got a lot of heavy lifting in front of us,” says Beech. Yet as a creator of jobs and investment, Intrexon is already a success. In fact, some say it’s the model for the future if Virginia wants to compete as a biotech state. Early-stage investment and support from a research university are key in moving technology from the lab into the marketplace.

The ability to pull that off may determine whether Virginia becomes a serious player. The state has about 175 biotech, pharmaceutical, medical-device and equipment businesses, according to the Virginia Biotechnology Association.
In 2002, the state began a major initiative to develop its biotech industry. It started offering more economic incentives, grants and business assistance for biotechs, and that appears to be paying off. Several major new R&D centers have opened — and others are planned — that have the potential to put Virginia solidly on the map with other biotech leaders, such as Massachusetts, Florida and North Carolina.

Burgeoning biotech clusters continue to grow in Northern Virginia, Richmond, Charlottesville, Roanoke/Blacksburg and Hampton Roads. If these centers can spin off companies from discoveries made there and at research at Virginia’s universities, then this emerging sector will not only boost the state’s R&D profile, but also lift local economies. Among the new centers:

• The $500 million Janelia Farm Research Campus of the Maryland-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The biomedical research campus in Loudoun County opened last year. It has 760,000 square feet of laboratory space and will have 300 scientists working there when it is fully operational next year.

• SRI International, a nonprofit based in Menlo Park, Calif., announced plans in December to build a Center for Advanced Drug Research in Rockingham County. It will collaborate with James Madison University and other Virginia schools. The center is expected to create 140 jobs and more than 100 new R&D positions by 2012.

• The University of Virginia broke ground last October on the 200,000-square-foot Carter-Harrison Medical Research Building, an $84 million project expected to open late next year. It will eventually house about 265 scientists and staff, who will focus on cancer research, infectious diseases and immunology.

• Philip Morris USA is putting finishing touches on its $300 million Research and Technology Center in downtown Richmond’s Virginia BioTechnology Research Park. The 450,000-square-foot facility will eventually house more than 500 scientists, engineers and support staff. The 34-acre park is home to more than 50 national and international bioscience companies, with many of them affiliated with nearby VCU Medical Center.

Robert Skunda, president and CEO of the park, says the Philip Morris facility has accelerated the park’s growth. “We see more folks kind of beating a path to our door,” he says. Sounds good, but how does that generate new, freestanding companies? Skunda acknowledges that a lot of the park’s space is occupied by nonprofits, government laboratories and small companies still working on big breakthroughs. He believes, though, that with so many scientists working in the same space, collaboration and innovation are likely to happen. “We want to encourage and create the situation where scientists can meet,” he says.

Skunda’s vision reflects in part the different dynamic that drives the life-sciences industry. When it comes to business success, oftentimes the driving force is a scientific breakthrough — the kind that depends on collaborations. “People don’t realize it takes a lot of time to build a biotech,” says Keith Oing, project manager for life sciences for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. It takes money, years of research and plenty of brainpower. “Most of those states that have grown the biotech industry, it hasn’t been [through] relocations, it’s been home-grown biotech companies that became successful,” he says.

Economic developers love biotech, because it’s a clean industry with good-paying jobs. That’s why places like Janelia Farm or the Richmond biotech park spawn such hope. And yet the ground here isn’t quite as fertile as it could be for home-grown companies, says Mark Herzog, executive director of Virginia Biotechnology Association. Earlier this year, two George Mason University researchers started a company, Theranostics Health LLC, based on technology they had developed at GMU. They decided to locate the firm in Rockville, Md., not Virginia.

Herzog blames that on a lack of buildings in Virginia with wet lab space. Such facilities, where chemicals, drugs or other biological materials are tested and analyzed, require special ventilation and utilities. They are costly to build and for now, at least, Virginia’s supply is behind the demand.

What’s more, Virginia could use more venture funds willing to invest in life sciences. Most of the firms that do are based in Boston or California, notes Herzog, and investors like to be close to the companies they back. “It’s a recurring story,” he says. “Either the facilities or the money. We have great ideas. We have no problem sparking innovations. But when it comes to commercializing the company, that’s where we suddenly have difficulty.”

If anyone has perfected a model of how to invest in biotech and succeed, it’s Randal Kirk. And yet he contradicts most of what others say about how biotech can thrive. “I always laugh,” he says. Every time, he picks up a trade magazine, Kirk notices advertisements from states trying to recruit biotech firms by touting buildings, biotech parks and quality of life.

Most of that doesn’t matter, he says. “Even a casual perusal of a biotech company … will quickly demonstrate that the things these industrial development folks offer amount to something less than 1 percent” of what these companies require. What matters “is the value of the intellectual property.” If you’ve got a good technology — and he thinks Intrexon does, obviously — then you can plant that company almost anywhere. “People who are active in their scientific field will basically go to where something truly exciting is occurring.”

The availability of wet lab space, for example, is helpful, but its absence is not a major obstacle, he says. Virginia has important assets in its universities and biotech parks — Virginia Tech and its biotech park have been very helpful for New River and Intrexon, he says — and the university is producing graduates who can staff junior-level slots in a biotech company. But in large part, there’s a fair amount of luck and serendipity involved.

For example, Kirk’s Third Security fund last year invested $5 million in a Roanoke startup called Synchrony. Its CEO and president, Victor Iannello, who holds a doctorate in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded the company in 1993 in his home in Roanoke County. Kirk thinks the company is in “the world’s leading position in the field of magnetic bearings … the work they’re doing is absolutely cutting edge.” The company is in Roanoke, Kirk points out, because Iannello already lived there.

One thing that could be done at the state level, Kirk says, is to change the state’s tax rules to shelter profits investors might get from sinking money into biotech firms. “In an indirect way, it’s about importing capital. You simply have to make the environment more attractive” for investors looking to maximize their return, he says.

What’s also true about the life sciences is that it’s not all about the money. This isn’t like making furniture or auto parts — researchers are striving for breakthrough medical therapies as well as new developments in agriculture and biodefense. Intrexon’s Beech is cautious not to overstate the potential human impact such breakthroughs could have, but he is excited by the possibilities. “There’re literally thousands of opportunities for us to use our technology for different types of diseases,” he says.

Virginia is still in the trial phase of becoming a national biotech leader. Reaching its promise may depend on unknown scientific wonders. Or as Kirk says: “I would imagine there are things going on that we don’t know about, in unlikely places, that are absolutely wonderful.”