‘An Engine of Diversity’

North Carolina’s Research Triangle area is providing research and career opportunities for the region as well as creating a diverse work force.

For Makendra Umstead, studying near the famed Research Triangle Park (RTP) in North Carolina’s Piedmont region seemed like an irresistible idea.

So the 18-year-old aspiring drug researcher chose to enroll at North Carolina Central University in 2007. The historically Black university is only about 15 minutes away from the research center, which boasts 170 companies involved in research and development in a variety of industries, such as life sciences and information technology. These include GlaxoSmithKline and IBM, and outside of RTP, but in the region, Merck.

There was one more reason for Umstead to pick NCCU. The school has just opened a new $20 million Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE) center, which is designed specifically to train crops of budding researchers and link them with the internships and jobs that the RTP offers.

“After my junior year, they will help set me up with internships at the park or elsewhere in the United States,” says Umstead, a sophomore fromRaleigh.

The convergence of higher education and research at the famed RTP has been all but idyllic for years. What happened there is a strong example of how regions can start their own home-grown, bootstrap efforts to harness local brains and draw in scientific research. An added bonus is that the BRITE center has benefited directly from efforts to stem deadly cigarette smoking, which has long been one of North Carolina’s major industries but is now facing steep decline.

Keeping Talent in State

The RTP was conceived back in the 1950s. At the time, North Carolina workers relied on low-paying textile and furniture jobs and small farms. Per capita incomes were among the lowest in the nation. The lack of decent jobs meant that more young people left for big Northern or Midwestern cities. If the young people happened to be Black, Jim Crow laws and strict societal limits on economic advancement gave them even more incentive tomove away.

Land developers and state officials wondered what could be done to reverse the trend. The area including Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham boasts of one of the country’s largest concentrations of universities, including Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,North Carolina State University, and NCCU, among others. They could offer a constant flow of freshly trained scientists for bright, new industries to replace the cut-and-sew shops just starting to face foreign competition and decline.

Forty-nine years after its opening, the RTP is one of the most successful in the nation. Within 7,000 acres, 42,000 full-time workers are employed, with an annual payroll of $2.7 billion. Salaries average about $50,000 a year, with some firms paying an average of $80,000 a year, says Liz Rooks, executive vice president of The Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina. The salaries are higher than the average for North Carolina and the United States.

The linchpins of the RTP’s success are the 100,000 or so students in the Raleigh- Durham area. “Each year, something like 19,252 degrees are awarded, and companies tell us that this is one of the greatest attractions — a great labor pool,” Rooks says. Although the park does not have a breakdown of which schools participate the most, each brings its own strengths into play. Duke and N.C. State have strong chemistry departments that can help the pharmaceutical firms. Information technology behemoths Cisco and IBM have strong relationships with N.C. State. Some of the drug firms have ties with NCCU and the Durham Technical Community College System.

Among the diseases and drugs researched are those of importance to minorities. For example, a researcher at The Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences at the RTP has won a $415,000, three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health that could lead to a better understanding of how insulin is secreted and new ways to treat diabetes.

The mix of companies at the RTP provides a telling glimpse at where research and development in the United States is heading. Life science firms make up about 29 percent of the companies, with IT forming 21 percent. Business services make up 15 percent, with materials sciences and engineering following at 13 percent. The region’s population experienced a 349 percent increase in citizens fromAsia, between 1990 and 1995. The research triangle is not the first such “research park” endeavor. Earlier efforts include an area around Stanford University in California and a cluster of high technology firms, especially computer hardware, around Route 128 near Boston. But the RTP is one of the best known.

One relative newcomer to the area is Merck, a major pharmaceutical firm based in New Jersey that has developed such drugs as Fosomax for osteoporosis and the shingles vaccine Zostavax. Its Gardasil drug to fight cervical cancer had sales last year of $1.5 billion. Total sales for the firm last year were $24.2 billion.

In 2004, Merck was looking for a place to build a large production and research facility for vaccines. The triangle area was found to be appealing during a national search because of the strong labor force and mix of good colleges, says Agnes Speight, public relations manager for Merck in Durham. The firm soon announced plans to build a $300 million facility to manufacture vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella, small pox and shingles and has since announced an additional $450million in investments.

Eventually, the facility will employ 400 people, and Merck has started to hire college students as interns and graduates as full-time employees. “We’ve had interns from NCCU for two or three years now and have already hired two graduates,” says Speight.

While Merck is not a board member of BRITE as are other drug firms including Pfizer and Eisai Co., Ltd., a Japanese firm that makes Alzheimer’s fighter Aricept, “the community has been very good about drawing us into discussion,” she says.

A BRITE Future

BRITE itself has its own special story. Officials at NCCU knew that life sciences, especially pharmaceuticals, had a bright future in the Piedmont area. Money was available from the Golden LEAF Foundation, an entity created to disperse funds won in a mammoth lawsuit against the tobacco industry. In 1998, four major cigarette makers agreed to pay out $206 billion as part of the so-called Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) to resolve health-related lawsuits among 46 states, including North Carolina. As much as $20 million was available from the settlement for BRITE, which got under way in 2004.

The point of BRITE is to select promising students and launch them in the fields of biotechnology and biomanufacturing while working closely with the companies in the research triangle. Besides planning for a new building, just opened this summer, BRITE officials got busy on developing a curriculum that could ease NCCU students into commercial laboratories, says Linda G. Love, BRITE’s industrial relations manager.

 “One of the complaints from the companies was that when a student came on board as an intern or recent hire, they didn’t have enough training to work in the labs. It can cost the companies up to $40,000 just to train someone. So we got busy and promised that they would be able to go to work from day one,” she says. Students associated with BRITE learn the basics of how to handle lab experiments and work in clean rooms. One asset was that about 85 percent of BRITE’s faculty came from commercial research so they already knew what to do, Love says.

In 2007, BRITE started placing interns among the biotech firms in the region, including Eisai Co., Ltd. and Biogen. About 110 students are associated with the program now, and the target is 200. Special arrangements can be made with the local community college for capable students to transfer to BRITE after two years.

Indeed, the prospects of working through BRITE appealed to NCCU’s Umstead, who spent the summer at nearby UNC-Chapel Hill in a science enrichment program studying organic chemistry and biostatistics. She is considering earning a doctorate in life sciences or going to pharmacy school. “It can be challenging,” she says. “Any slip-up in information can be detrimental, so you really need to be at the top of your game.”

BRITE is drawing students from more varied backgrounds. Bronwyn Holliday, for example, is a 41-year-old former chef from Mississippi and Asheville, N.C., who believes that a career in pharmaceutical research at this stage in her life is a better bet than cooking. “There are some similarities, especially with baking,” she says. “When you deal with drugs and cakes, you have to be very precise.”

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