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Community Colleges Working to Develop A National Alliance for Biomanufacturing

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A group of more than 40 community colleges nationwide plan to seek a $5 million, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation later this year toward wedding their programs into a national network that will join with employers to teach and train new workers for careers in biomanufacturing.
 
Representatives from the group of colleges and several biomanufacturing companies met late last month in San Diego to flesh out a formal grant proposal. The proposal would create four “alliances,” each in a different region of the US, and each anchored by a community college with a strong biomanufacturing program and relationships with companies that manufacture for the life sciences market, from biotech and pharma giants to makers of ingredients and contract research organizations.
 
“We identified the common needs for a national organization and we developed the mission statement, goals, and objectives for the National Biomanufacturing Collaborative.  We will be meeting again in July through the annual BioMan conference [in Blue Bell, Pa., near Philadelphia] to further discuss the organizational structure and proposal details,” said an attendee of the San Diego meeting,” Sengyong Lee, associate professor and program chair for biotechnology at IvyTech Community College’s Bloomington, Ind., campus.
 
The schools have already submitted a pre-proposal to NSF, and have till mid-October to submit their formal proposals. NSF is expected to decide next spring on the proposal, which would fund the national alliance from Sept. 1, 2009 through Aug. 31, 2013.
 
“Our plan is to be totally self-sufficient during that time. We’re going to have a businessperson help us out, and really make it a nonprofit business at the end,” Sonia Wallman, director of the Northeast Biomanufacturing Center and Collaborative, told BioRegion News.
 
The key to self-sufficiency, she said, would be persuading companies to carry out short-term incumbent worker training programs through the national alliance.
 
Also called NBC2, The Northeast Biomanufacturing Center and Collaborative will serve as the national group’s Northeastern alliance. The collaborative is a 35-school, 10-state alliance that Wallman also runs at the New Hampshire Biotechnology Education and Training Center at Great Bay Community College (formerly New Hampshire Community Technical College) in Portsmouth, NH. NBC2’s “lead program” or hub is a National Center of Expertise in Biomanufacturing.
 
Launched in 1994, the Great Bay CC biomanufacturing program has graduated 369 students — 200 of which went on to biomanufacturing careers — with 25 grads completing the program this year and an average of 30 grads annually. “About half of the [graduates hold] associates degrees and half of them are certificate students” — namely existing workers retraining for other jobs with their employers, Wallman said.
 
The proposed biomanufacturing training alliance would also include regional networks in the Midwest, with its hub at IvyTech Community College in Indianapolis; the West, which would include the bioprocessing hub at MiraCosta College, a community college in San Diego; the South, which would include the North Carolina Community College BioNetwork Validation Service Academy, a partnership of the North Carolina Community College System, the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering, and the US Department of Commerce, with another hub to be established in Puerto Rico; and the Northeast, which would have hubs in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, as well as at NBC2.
 
Life sciences businesses involved in last month’s meeting in San Diego included Abbott Laboratories’ biomanufacturing unit in Puerto Rico and Bioresearch Center in Worcester, Mass.; BioConvergence, Centocor, Cook Pharmica, Eli Lilly, Human Genome Sciences, Invitrogen, Lonza, Merck, and Wyeth.
 
“What we’re trying to do is a national biomanufacturing center and collaborative that will encourage these local partnerships in a national way,” namely by training incumbent workers as their employers’ skill needs change, Wallman said in an interview. “A lot of people kick community colleges in the face, but they are very, very important for this sector of the economy.”
 
One factor in favor of forming such partnerships, she said, was that technicians account for about 75 percent of the workers hired by the average biomanufacturing facility, with employers assigning workers in need of training to local community colleges like hers.
 
Annual salaries for biomanufacturing employees in New England range from $35,000 to $45,000, and sometimes even higher in the Boston/Cambridge, Mass., region.
 
Another source of activity for the biomanufacturing training centers is the growing need of employers for retraining existing workers as skill requirements change over time.
 

“A lot of people kick community colleges in the face, but they are very, very important for this sector of the economy.”

She said the community college administrators and biomanufacturers began to address that need last September, when they started consolidating the requirements of each academic program into a single national standard intended to address industry needs.
 
“The industry said, ‘We’re interested in production jobs and quality [control] jobs. There are too few jobs in metrology and facilities, and validation process development,” Wallman said.
 
However, a course designed to teach the science of measurement and management of biofacilities will be developed to ensure trainees have a grasp of those skills, she added.
 
Wallman also said that a national alliance of biomanufacturing programs could help companies thinking of moving into or expanding within a community by assisting nearby colleges with developing a curriculum and instructional materials, crafting short courses for incumbent worker training, and helping the schools acquire equipment.
 
Wallman contacted BRN in May after reading a report in the newsletter about Indiana’s goal, set by Gov. Mitch Daniels, of growing the Hoosier State’s life sciences effort into a top-ranked biocluster [BRN, May 19].
 
IvyTech CC later this year is set to complete a 25,000-square-foot Southern Indiana Life Sciences Training Institute just northeast of its Bloomington, Ind., campus. The facility is being funded through $5 million from the government of Indiana’s Monroe County, which includes Bloomington; as well as funds from IvyTech and the NSF.
 
The training institute’s four labs, training suite, and offices would house both training programs as well as process development efforts by companies and educators. The training suite would include a pilot plant with upstream and downstream process labs and a quality control analytical lab.
 
“We’re going to hire our [biomanufacturing students within the programs that comprise the national alliance] into those process development projects. I’ve got the equipment in these facilities. We’re training our students. But the equipment isn’t being used every single moment. So we have companies come in, and they’ll give us something to do, and the students will carry it out,” Wallman said.
 
Lee, the chair of the IvyTech CC Bloomington program, told BRN last week IvyTech’s Bloomington campus has graduated 15 students with two-year degrees while granting 163 biomanufacturing and medical device manufacturing technician certificates. This past spring semester, ITCC Bloomington's biotechnology program had 180 enrolled students in the program, with similar numbers of graduates and enrollments at IvyTech’s Indianapolis biotech program.
 
“The new NSF grant proposal that we are working together currently will help us to develop and deliver more harmonized biomanufacturing workforce education,” Lee told BRN via e-mail. “The biomanufacturng industry had been mostly centered around the West and East coast areas previously, but as there has been a major shift in the global economy situation, the biomanufacturing industry has expanded to many other states including Indiana.  In the state of Indiana, we have witnessed many small startup biomanufacturing companies established.  Companies like Cook Pharmica and BioConvergence just developed within the past three or four years.
 
“As we have more of these companies to develop in many parts of the US, the need for a seamless workforce education system is imminent.  The new grant and the National Biomanufacturing Collaborative Centers will support educators and industry trainers nation wide in developing a biomanufacturing workforce,” Lee added. “The specific jobs and training topics in biomanufacturing industry will be clearly identified by industry partners and educators will develop and share training modules and text books.”
 
During a presentation at the 2007 BIO International Convention, available here, Lee said the facility is intended to train workers for a projected 1,500 new biomanufacturing jobs to be created through 2012 in a region that had 5,000 biotech and medical device jobs.
 
IvyTech’s program was officially launched in the fall of 2004 through a startup grant the community college and Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis teamed up to secure from the Lilly Endowment toward development of a new associate degree program in Biotechnology. The program is offered at six IvyTech campuses — Bloomington, Indianapolis, West Lafayette, Evansville, Terra Haute, and South Bend as well as IUPUI.
 
New Hampshire has housed biomanufacturing companies since at least the 1980s, when a predecessor to Kalamazoo, Mich.-based Stryker established what is now that company’s biomanufacturing facility division in west Lebanon, NH. Stryker completed a $100 million expansion of the West Lebanon site last year.
 
Wallman said that biomanufacturing programs like those to be included in the national alliance are expected to produce steady long-term growth for the life sciences industry — notwithstanding the global outsourcing trend, underscored by a warning from an Ernst and Young executive that the US only has a decade before biomanufacturing companies pursue the same cost savings of outsourcing production overseas that has happened with other industries [BRN, Oct. 1, 2007].
 
“Whether it’s Wyeth in North Andover, Mass., or Lonza here [in Portsmouth, NH], they’re always going to want to have some facility at home because they have their main corporate headquarters here,” Wallman said — notwithstanding Wyeth expanding in Ireland and Lonza building a Singapore facility.
 
“I see that no matter what happens, we’re going to be safe, especially if we’re doing these really great things — providing technicians and worker training, services that they necessarily may not want to do themselves because they are too costly,” Wallman added. “We’re going to be really, really needed.”

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