A year ago, Pharmaceutical Product Development Inc. CEO Fred Eshelman couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise for the North Carolina Research Campus, which billionaire David Murdock is developing in Kannapolis. “After meeting with Mr. Murdock and visiting the campus, I realized this project is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where industry and academic scientists can freely collaborate to bring innovations in scientific research to market, increasing the length and quality of human life.” To that end, the Wilmington-based drug tester committed to opening an office at the campus that it said would employ as many as 300 within three years.
That was then. As one of Eshelman’s final acts as CEO before settling in as executive chairman, he pulled PPD out of the project. The reason: “Progress in developing, constructing and recruiting tenants to the North Carolina Research Campus has been much slower than we expected,” spokeswoman Sue Ann Pentecost says. “We understand that this is the result of the economic conditions and the global financial crisis.” Key to the decision was a 160,000-square-foot building — or the lack thereof — that PPD was to share with Charlotte-based Carolinas HealthCare System. “Construction of the building we intended to lease has not commenced. As a result, we elected to terminate our lease.” The company later announced it had laid off about 270 workers in North America, including “fewer than 80” at its headquarters, where it employs about 1,800. It blamed the layoffs on reduced demand for its services but maintained that the withdrawal in Kannapolis wasn’t related.
The decision leaves the campus with 17 private companies that have announced plans for operations there. More defections could be coming. Murdock acknowledged earlier this year in an interview with The Salisbury Post that Purchase, N.Y.-based PepsiCo Inc.’s plan to open a 4,000-square-foot lab is “in flux.”
Clyde Higgs, vice president of business development at the campus, wouldn’t directly address PPD’s defection, though he did cite the poor economy for delays. He says recruiting is still progressing, pointing to a recent commitment from Charlotte-based Mallard Creek Polymers Inc. to open a 3,000-square-foot lab. He believes more announcements are forthcoming. Pentecost says PPD is not slamming the door as it departs. “Despite this development, we have informed NCRC that we would like to continue to work closely with them to evaluate ways in which we can participate.”