Banking on Biotech
Winston-Salem State gears up to play a key role in the hometown’s new enterpriseWINSTON-SALEM, N.C.
Winston-Salem, N.C., has long been known as a tobacco and textiles town. For generations, this historic city of approximately 186,000 nestled in the rolling hills of North Carolina’s Piedmont region had been at the center of the American tobacco industry as home to the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company, the maker of the Winston and Salem cigarette brands.
With the American tobacco and textile industries in decline since the 1980s, Winston-Salem has staked its future on a new enterprise — biological sciences and technology. In making a transition that demands a highly-skilled and educated work force, city and area leaders have turned to one of its longtime educational institutions to play a key role — Winston-Salem State University, a historically Black university that was founded as an industrial arts training academy.
Recently, local officials announced their intentions to expand the Piedmont Triad Research Park in downtown Winston-Salem by 180 acres. The acreage of the proposed expansion is more than 10 times the size of the current park. The park currently covers a five-block area and includes four multistory buildings, more than 20 tenants, nearly 600 employees and a total annual payroll approaching $25 million. Officials harbor hopes that the expansion will attract innovative companies and spur research and development that will propel Winston-Salem into the top-tier of biotech research and development centers.
“The expanded research park will be a major addition to North Carolina’s Biotechnology Corridor,” says North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, referring to the group of more than 150 biotech companies already operating in the state.
If the research park expansion proceeds as planned, the campus of Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) will border the park’s southern boundaries, and the school will have the opportunity to locate future academic facilities within the park. Officials say that WSSU is expected to have a presence within the park’s proposed nonprofit biotechnology research campus. The park’s research campus will be anchored by research facilities of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. Research at the school of medicine has been the primary driver of the biotech activity in Winston-Salem, according to officials.
WSSU Chancellor Dr. Harold Martin says it’s likely WSSU would expand into the research park given that WSSU officials are interested in developing academic programs in biotechnology, molecular biology and pharmacy. He notes that WSSU is already transitioning from a strictly bachelor’s degree-granting institution to one that grants master’s degrees and potentially the doctorate.
By the spring of 2003, WSSU will have in place five master’s programs after having none since its founding in 1892 to the fall of 2001. Last year, WSSU enrolled master’s students in elementary education and physical therapy. This fall, an evening master’s business administration program has gotten under way, and starting next semester, master’s programs in nursing and computer science will begin.
“We’re looking at ways to expand our physical presence in the park,” Martin says.
Martin adds that the master’s programs were developed to align WSSU academic programs to help meet employment demands and educational needs driven by the city’s new economic direction. The programs grew out of a study WSSU officials conducted in coordination with the Winston-Salem corporate community shortly after Martin became chancellor in early 2000.
“We see our growth going from expansion of undergraduate programs to one where the expansion is largely with master’s programs,” Martin says.
As veteran academic administrators, Martin and WSSU provost Dr. Melvin Johnson arrived at the Winston-Salem campus after having worked at nearby North Carolina A&T State University, another historically Black institution. They helped create new master’s and doctoral programs at the Greensboro, N.C., school.
Greg Brownstein a spokesman for Idealliance, the nonprofit organization coordinating development of the Piedmont Triad Research Park, says WSSU deserves praise for its leadership in local efforts to bring a supercomputing operation to Winston-Salem. It is said that a supercomputer will help attract biotech companies to the research park because the research and development work in creating new medicines and other biotech products require significant computing power, according to Brownstein.
“These companies have very extreme computing demands,” Brownstein says. “Winston-Salem State has a lot (of resources) to contribute to the research park.”
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