BioNetwork’s Yes We Can attitude gives a boost to the state’s life-science cluster

Training and other innovations developed at North Carolina’s community
colleges produce the talented work force sought by biotech companies

No CEO or plant manager can deny enjoying hearing the words, “Yes, we can,” from employees. The same is true for life-sciences industry calls for training and other help from the professionals at the N.C. Community College System’s BioNetwork. Many of BioNetwork’s staff are industry veterans whose can-do attitude toward the challenges faced by life-sciences companies continues to garner statewide and national attention.

The attitude mirrors that of Dr. Scott Ralls, the community-college system’s new president. “Community colleges in North Carolina are and have always been about jobs, and BioNetwork excels at supporting our industry partners by rapidly responding to the needs of the life science industry with training and education programs for their workforce,” Ralls says. BioNetwork is a statewide initiative that coordinates the delivery of specialized training to develop a world-class life-sciences workforce. All community colleges serving the sector are a part of BioNetwork. In addition, six BioNetwork Centers with statewide responsibilities develop curricula and offer train-the-trainer workshops for new technologies.

The community-college system has provided life-sciences training for more than 20 years. Ala- mance Community College started the country’s first biotechnology associate degree in 1985. “If it wasn’t for North Carolina getting behind the community colleges, the state wouldn’t be where it is today,” says Bill Woodruff, its biotechnology department head. Wake Tech offered the first industrial pharmaceutical-technology associate degree. Southeastern Community College recently became the first to offer an associate degree in agricultural biotechnology.

This leadership also is apparent at other BioNetwork colleges. Forsyth Tech’s nanotechnology program prepares students to characterize and fabricate materials for biological, textile, chemical, and electrical applications at the atomic level. Coursework includes manufacturing-engineering technology and advanced nanotechnology. The program prepares students for engineering, manufacturing and medical R&D jobs. Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University, recently attested to the program’s value. “[Institute officials] have a terrific partnership with Forsyth Tech. We have 12 students from the biotech program, and we truly couldn’t do what we do without them.”

Another critical area for life sciences has resulted in another BioNetwork first — training technicians for clean-room maintenance. As part of its strategy to recruit biomanufacturers, the state has developed the first training program for maintenance technicians working at companies with aseptic manufacturing production lines. Pitt Community College has a state-of-the-art training facility for incumbent workers and people seeking a new career. It is the only one of its kind in the U.S. dedicated to teaching systems maintenance specifically for the pharmaceutical and biomanufacturing industries. This is especially important for vaccine and insulin manufacturers that rely on aseptic processes.

Greg Smith, curriculum coordinator at the BioNetwork Bioprocessing Center, says the clean-room suite and the coursework taught in it cut training time in half for companies. “Companies won’t need to find and train someone from within the company, with months of lost production. Students are able to learn the correct way to perform their jobs before they are even hired.”

Continuing this trend of nationwide firsts, the BioNetwork Capstone Center opened and operates the first full-scale, simulated cGMP (current good manufacturing practices) aseptic suite in the country. Located in the Golden LEAF Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center on N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus, it offers courses that provide a capstone experience to community-college biotech students or workers who want to upgrade skills. The center also operates the country’s only mobile laboratory dedicated to worker training. It travels to company sites and offers accelerated laboratory-based biotechnology training. The mobile lab has visited companies such as Wyeth Vaccines in Sanford and Talecris Biotherapeutics in Clayton. By being on site, it makes training convenient and reduces the impact of pulling workers offline. The Capstone Center is operated by a consortium of Research Triangle community colleges led by Wake Tech.

The BioNetwork Validation Academy, a partnership between BioNetwork and ISPE (International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering), is another first. It is a major benefit for companies wishing to open pharmaceutical or biomanufacturing facilities and also for growing companies planning expansions.

Validation is a regulatory requirement for biopharmaceutical facilities — written proof that a pharmaceutical company or biomanufacturer must provide to show that the processes or systems they use will consistently produce safe products. It typically costs between 5% and 9% of a plant’s capital costs. Training at the academy provides a significant incentive for locating in North Carolina. People cannot get ISPE-based training in a specialized lab for the hands-on component of validation except at BioNetwork Community Colleges. The colleges also offer 17 courses. Some companies have built these courses into their annual training and quality control schedules and have made them part of their federal Food and Drug Administration compliance practices.

BioNetwork’s specialized training offers biopharmaceutical companies in North Carolina a strategic competitive advantage. As visiting biopharmaceutical executives discover BioNetwork’s can-do attitude and understand the significance of the advantage, North Carolina will continue to attract and grow its biopharmaceutical and life-sciences cluster.