Tipping Point: Life sciences

Charles Hamner retired in 2002 after 14 years as the CEO of the nonprofit North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park. A biochemist and veterinarian, he helped the state’s biotech industry grow into one of the nation’s top five, nearly tripling the number of companies. During his tenure, the center invested more than $50 million in the state’s universities, provided seed money to 62 startups and helped recruit more than a dozen companies.

North Carolina has been a 20-year overnight success in biotechnology, thanks to numerous efforts to create the right infrastructure. The state’s leadership helped build up the capacity of research universities by hiring world-class professors, including specialists in genomics and other life-science fields. One of the first, in 1988, was Oliver Smithies, who just got the Nobel Prize in genomics at UNC Chapel Hill. The second building stone was education, first reaching into the middle schools, high schools and universities to install life sciences as a major to help people to realize career opportunities. Then we set up the BioWorks training program for the community-college system. And now we have the Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center at N.C. State and the Biomanufacturing Research Institute & Technology Enterprise at N.C. Central. That makes us a key place for the skilled work force. The third thing was to help small companies get started through venture capital and translational research. One of the most important was DioSynth Technology, which helps other companies develop drugs. It went from two employees in 1994 to 600 employees today. We also recruited about 12 companies while I was at the biotech center, including Bayer, Biogen, Esai, Novo Nordisk Pharmaceutical Services, Novozymes, Novo Nordisk Engineering, Schwarz Biosciences and Wyeth. One of the big keys was when we persuaded the Burroughs Wellcome Fund to stay here after Burroughs Wellcome was purchased by Glaxo. It’s a very important nonprofit fund that supports university research in a big way.