Tuesday, February 26, 2008

NC Legislators Increase Biotech Funding

There they go again...

Posted on Sat, Feb. 23, 2008
State increases bet that biotech can grow jobs
Oliver Smithies, who joined UNC Chapel Hill in 1988, is one of the N.C. Biotechnology Center's biggest success stories.

The biotech center, funded largely with state tax dollars, spent $899,875 to help UNC Chapel Hill recruit Smithies and six other researchers in 1988, when the state's fledgling biotech industry needed more research power.

Two decades later, the investment paid off: He won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Now the third-largest U.S. biotech hub by number of companies, North Carolina is again counting on the biotech center to attract the next generation of researchers, companies and discoveries.

Legislators have more than doubled state funding for the biotech center since Gov. Mike Easley called on the biotech industry to help revitalize the state economy four years ago.

For the current fiscal year, funding is about $15.6 million. The legislature approved an additional $83 million to boost research, worker training and manufacturing initiatives that the biotech center supports.

"We invest in other people's ideas, but our ultimate goal is to create more jobs," said Norris Tolson, a former state secretary of revenue who became chief executive of the center in July.

The goal is to replace about 100,000 textile, tobacco and furniture manufacturing jobs that the state has lost by 2023. That's about double the existing statewide biotech work force of 54,000.

To build on the state's regional strengths, the biotech center has opened five satellite offices since 2003, including one at UNC Charlotte. The broader reach of the center has led to plans to expand its Research Triangle Park headquarters.

Competition for jobs is fierce. Massachusetts, the second-largest U.S. biotech hub, plans to spend $1 billion to boost research and job development and create a first-in-the-nation state stem cell bank.

Top-ranked California committed $400 million to help establish the California Institutes for Science and Innovation. Up-and-comer Florida has pledged $310 million for the Scripps Research Institute, and Ohio will spend $60 million on a center for innovation at the Cleveland Clinic.

Meanwhile, lower-cost countries are drawing companies and investors.

GlaxoSmithKline, the British drugmaker with a U.S. headquarters in the Triangle, is cutting jobs in the U.S. and planning a 1,000-employee research laboratory in China.

Contract drug research companies are expanding in the United States -- the largest of them, Quintiles Transnational Corp., is doubling its work force to 2,000 at its Durham headquarters -- but also in Asia and Eastern Europe.

North Carolina's response has been not only to spend more but also to promote diversification beyond drug development, which has long been the strength of the state's biotech industry. It is throwing money into biofuels, natural remedies, nanotechnology and medical devices.

Indeed, environmentally friendly biotech is particularly dear to Tolson and several lawmakers overseeing the biotech center's budget. At stake are the state's forestry and fishing industries and farm production as the climate changes, Tolson said.

Research money handed out last year is indicative of the trend. The center awarded $6.4 million in fiscal year 2007 to companies, researchers and teachers.

Funding for drug research figured prominently in that amount. Ashutosh Chilkoti, a Duke University professor overseeing efforts to make chemotherapy safer and more effective for cancer patients, received a $100,000 grant.

One of the biotech center's largest research grants last year, $249,988, was awarded to Jay Cheng, an assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering at N.C. State University. Cheng is trying to determine whether coastal Bermuda grass can be used to make ethanol.

Last year, an initiative to support research on natural remedies started at the N.C. Arboretum in Asheville. That research, which received $3 million from the legislature, is being done under the auspices of the biotech center.

Biotech center officials also successfully lobbied to establish the Biofuels Center of North Carolina. Legislators approved $5 million to establish the nonprofit organization, which opened last month in Oxford.

Biofuels and development of novel feedstocks to make them are of particular interest to David Weinstein, a Democrat and chairman of the state's Senate Appropriations on Natural and Economic Resources Committee. Construction of the state's first ethanol production plant is under way in Hoke County, which Weinstein represents.

Weinstein supports funding other segments of the industry. "Any money we put in biotech," he said, "is money well-spent."

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