Talent talk: Novo Nordisk execs discuss biotech workforce pipelines with ECU, JCC

Editor’s note: Lawrence Bivins is managing director of the North Carolina Economic Development Association, a WRAL TechWire partner.

CLAYTON – In supporting North Carolina’s emergence as a global destination for biotech operations, the state’s higher education institutions have been front and center. From 2013 to 2018, for example, there were over 23,000 life sciences degrees awarded by campuses in the state, according to the N.C. Biotechnology Center. It is a spirit of collaboration that is based on a candid and ongoing dialogue among company officials, educational leaders and economic developers.

And it was on display recently as top leaders from East Carolina University (ECU) toured Novo Nordisk’s sprawling aseptic manufacturing facility in Clayton and a nearby training center organized and operated through a unique partnership between Johnston Community College (JCC), Johnston County government, Novo Nordisk and Grifols, another significant biomanufacturing plant with high demand for employees possessing specialized biotech skills.

“We’re a 24/7 operation,” explained Chad Henry, corporate vice president at Novo Nordisk, a global healthcare company with more than 95 years of innovation in diabetes care. Novo Nordisk’s Clayton facility is part of the company’s global network of manufacturing sites that supplies diabetes treatments to more than 14 countries. “We’re incredibly proud of what we do” said Henry, a Raleigh native. “Making medicines is a special purpose.”

Henry and other Novo Nordisk officials welcomed Interim ECU Chancellor Ron Mitchelson and Mike Van Scott, interim vice chancellor for research, economic development and engagement at ECU. Johnston Community College President David Johnson also joined the tour, as did Mark Phillips of the N.C. Biotech Center’s Greenville Office. Phillips is working closely with Johnston County’s Office of Economic Development, which organized the half-day visit, on the North Carolina Biopharma Crescent, an initiative pulling together life science assets in Johnston, Nash, Pitt and Wilson counties under a unified regional brand.

Novo Nordisk’s Clayton campus will expand next year when a massive new facility across the street begins producing diabetes active pharmaceutical ingredient (DAPI), the first time the company will operate a DAPI plant outside of Denmark. The new plant, announced in August 2015, comes with a $2 billion price tag and will employ hundreds of biomanufacturing workers. The company’s current total headcount of 1,200 in Clayton is a far cry from the 200-person headcount Henry recalls seeing in 2001, when he first began working for Novo Nordisk in Clayton. “Most of our workforce is local – Johnston, Wilson, Wayne counties,” Henry said. “Obviously, we have a huge need for trained folks in both the new and existing spaces.”

Clad in hairnets, shoe covers and aseptic gowns, the group toured production, testing and packaging areas.

Earlier in the day, Mitchelson and Van Scott got a first-hand view of the Johnston County Workforce Development Center, chatting with staff and students as they trained. Opened in 2005, the 30,000-sq.-ft. facility focuses on life science education and training. JCC’s Associates degree program in Bioprocess Technology is based there, and all newly hired employees at Grifols and Novo Nordisk attend basic training at the center, which is funded by the two companies via a special tax district set up in 2003. Depending on the position, training may last anywhere from three days to three weeks.

Grifols, a Spanish maker of synthetic blood plasma, and Novo Nordisk also donated over $1 million in equipment to the center, which operates a simulated workplace environment (SWE) identical to what workers will experience once on the job. JCC employs a full-time career counselor at the center to help students navigate life science employment options. “We’re multi-entry and multi-exit,” explained Leslie Isenhour, chair of biotechnology programs at JCC. “You can come back at any time to get that extra training and extra skill to level up.”

Isenhour says the center also interacts with area secondary schools in order to sharpen awareness of biotech opportunities for local graduates. The center is helping Princeton High School and Clayton High School launch biotech programs that enable students to earn BioWork certifications and start their biotech careers as early as age 18. Partnering with Grifols, JCC has designed a “Discover the Plasma” program to engage 8th graders about local careers in the life sciences.

ECU’s Mitchelson, a longtime professor of economic geography, called the collaborative arrangements “amazing — especially the fact that they are partnering all the way down to the K-12 level to make sure that bio-manufacturing is known to students – and their parents — as a great career choice,” he said. “I think that’s essential.”

With its large medical school, allied health curricula, analytical chemistry program and other assets, ECU can extend its intellectual capital into the state’s life sciences industry in a way that adds value for both established companies and start-ups. The campus is currently supporting the spin-out of a firm specializing in blood flow, Mitchelson said. ECU’s research in coastal environments could similarly generate commercial applications for North Carolina companies.

But, in an era of rock-bottom unemployment rates, the key value-add of campuses like ECU and JCC for biotech companies is producing ready life-science workers. “I think these talent pipelines are crucial to the health of these firms,” Mitchelson said. “There’s a good reason Novo is going to expand across the street.”

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