Politicians and industry leaders discuss challenges facing biotech at RTP summit

lfinaldi@newsobserver.comJuly 27, 2013 

— The biotechnology industry is a driving force in North Carolina’s economic recovery, and local businesses need to remain competitive and have a global presence if they want to attract the best talent.

That was the overriding theme of a summit held Friday at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline’s U.S. headquarters in Research Triangle Park. Hosted by GSK in conjunction with NCBIO, the NC Chamber and the We Work for Health Initiative, the event brought together about 100 business leaders, policy makers and nonprofit leaders for a discussion about the sector’s economic impact.

In a keynote address, Senator Kay Hagan said investing in the biopharmaceutical industry will lead to higher paying tech jobs in North Carolina and across the country. The field will continue to grow, she said, through government investments in research, quicker Food and Drug Administration approval for drugs and stricter protections on a drug’s intellectual property.

“When we invest in innovation, we invest in future economic prosperity,” said Hagan, a Democrat from Greensboro. “While our economic recovery in North Carolina remains fragile, now more than ever is when we need to be making sure that we have the right policy environment.”

During the panel discussion, which was led by NCBIO president Sam Taylor, four area pharmaceutical leaders representing industry subsectors ranging from research to drug packaging discussed the industry’s place in the economy and the challenges it faces.

While the manufacturing sector of biotech is more innovative than ever, it’s difficult to find employees who are qualified to operate the machinery because biotechnology companies all over the world are looking for such employees, said John Grinnell, vice president and managing director of drug packaging company MeadWestVaco Healthcare. This makes proper educational training at universities even more important, he said.

“We need as a state to be sure that we have continual supply of people who are up to the level of skill to enter that workforce and grow, provide for the future of manufacturing in the biotech community here,” Grinnell said. “There’s a lot of candidates out there to take this business from all of us, and we’ve got to make sure we’ve got people who can step up to raise a higher and higher bar.”

When figuring out the best practices for overall economic growth, it’s important to view everything – including tax policy, business climate, education and innovation – as one rather than isolating them all from one another because everything is linked together, said Gary Salamido, the NC Chamber’s vice president of governmental affairs.

“When you isolate them … you’re going to get left behind,” Salamido said. “You’ve got to be competitive, you got to innovate … you’ve got to protect what’s good in education, but at the same time not be afraid to shake things up in innovation. And make sure that our young people that are coming out are getting the jobs they need to get in, be able to look at the world differently.”

House Speaker Thom Tillis also gave a keynote address, where he discussed North Carolina’s allure as a center of commerce and the small-government focus of the current legislature.

The state’s biopharmaceutical sector directly supported 52,938 jobs in 2011, most of which yield high wages and require advanced skill sets, according to a study from Battelle Technology Partnership Practice.The $50.3 billion dollar industry also averaged $101,890 in average compensation per employee, about 48 percent above the $49,349 average salary in the state economy that same year.

Finaldi: 9198294582 or twitter.com/lauraefinaldi

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