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HBCUs to Participate in North Carolina Research Campus

HBCUs to Participate in North Carolina Research Campus
Public, private partnership to help maintain state’s position in biotech innovation

North Carolina officials believe the February groundbreaking of the North Carolina Research Campus, a $1 billion, 350-acre biotechnology research park near Charlotte, will help the state maintain its dominant position in biotech innovation. Ranked third in the United States for the number of biotech firms, North Carolina has attracted and nurtured a thriving biotechnology sector, including a significant pharmaceutical presence.

North Carolina’s top research universities, North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, will each establish a research institute at the research campus, which is being built on the site of a former textile mill complex in Kannapolis. What is unique about the effort is that two historically Black universities, in addition to other universities and the state’s community colleges, have been tapped to participate in the new research campus.

“North Carolina Central University (NCCU) will definitely be one of the players in that project,” says Dr. Ken Harewood, director of that university’s Julius L. Chambers Biomedical/ Biotechnology Research Institute.

Officials at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro and NCCU in Durham say the HBCUs will play significant roles at the new campus as they plan to establish their own research teams there. Officials hope the involvement of the two HBCUs will help ensure that minorities remain represented in the biotech industry, which has become an increasingly competitive segment of the global economic arena.

At North Carolina A&T, Dr. Alton Thompson, dean of the School of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, says his school will sponsor a research team closely tied to N.C. State University’s Institute for Advanced Fruit and Vegetable Science. The institute will develop information and technologies to advance the nutritional content of fruits and vegetables and to increase agricultural production. Thompson notes that the research is expected to help North Carolina farmers shift from dwindling markets like tobacco to popular foods traditionally not produced in high quantities in the state. 

“In order for small farmers like the ones in North Carolina to produce for Dole Foods, they’re going to have to develop co-ops and work with research schools to boost their productivity,” Thompson says. “They can’t do it individually; they have to do it collectively” to compete with the large-scale farm enterprises that dominate American agricultural production.  

Harewood says NCCU’s institute has built its research portfolio in health disparities work and is working out an agreement to establish a research team within the UNC-Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute.

The Chapel Hill institute will focus on the relationships among nutrition, cancer, diabetes, obesity and the brain. Harewood, a biologist and biochemist, recently received the O. Max Gardner Award from the UNC board of governors, which honored his contributions to health disparities research and his commitment to expanding the pool of minority scientists.

A Fresh Mix
The research campus is the pet project of billionaire David H. Murdock, owner and chairman of agricultural giant Dole Foods. The part-time North Carolina resident is investing at least $150 million of the estimated $1 billion required to develop a major biotech hub in the tradition of the state’s well-established Research Triangle Park near Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham. The new research campus will be anchored by the 311,000-square-foot David H. Murdock Core Laboratory Building, which will house an 80,000-square-foot core laboratory. Duke University will manage the core lab, which will be furnished with state-of-the-art equipment.

A $150 million charitable foundation launched by Murdock will provide the equipment for the core laboratory as well as other not-for-profit activities on the campus. Murdock is also establishing a $100 million venture capital fund to attract new companies to North Carolina and the research campus. According to project officials, the lab is expected to open in November 2007 and will employ an estimated 2,200 people over the next two and a half years.

“This is the best example of what can happen when public institutions and private institutions learn to work together for the good of the community and the nation,” Murdock said at the February groundbreaking ceremony.

Harewood says the involvement of Dole Foods is helping to attract a range of biotech research and business interests to the research campus. With research and expected innovations in plant genomics, nutrition and drug production, the campus will make North Carolina a premier destination for the up-and-coming biotech companies, Harewood contends. “This is a project most states wish they could have,” he says.  

Some 44 states currently have programs to develop research facilities with the expectation of nurturing new biotech development. Many states offer tax breaks to growing bioscience firms and some even invest funds directly to help launch small ventures.

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