The president of the Piedmont Triad Research Park in Winston-Salem, NC, is vowing that recent layoffs and a scaleback in its business attraction effort won't stop the campus from pursuing a long-term expansion intended to cement its role as an anchor of the life sciences cluster taking shape about an hour's drive west of Research Triangle Park.
PTRP this week laid off Bill Dean, the director of the research park and head of its recruitment operation, and three support staffers, among cost-cutting moves announced by the research park earlier this month. Those moves included farming out the marketing of available space at the research park to the university's commercial real estate firm, Pleasants Properties, and shifting the center's focus from recruiting new life-sci employers to fill existing space, to carrying out the extensive infrastructure projects needed for the research park to grow over the next generation.
"More infrastructure work needs to be done before we expect large-scale construction" in PTRP's central district, one of the three districts that comprise the 230-acre research park, Doug Edgeton, PTRP's president, told BioRegion News this week via e-mail.
"We are about three months away from completion of a railroad corridor relocation. We are in the pre-construction stages of a major storm water management project. We have recently completed placing a series of high voltage lines underground and are now in the process of removing the massive towers that formerly supported those lines. All of the projects are continuing on schedule, and we are still planning for buildings in the park with outside companies and other institutions of higher education," Edgeton added. "We continue to actively work through the project development aspects of the park."
The railroad tracks were moved in order to create a "research parkway" thoroughfare through PTRP.
Edgeton also said PTRP is in talks with a new developer, Wexford Science+Technology, to join with the research park in developing a long-planned expansion that another builder was supposed to have begun. Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse of Baltimore had been selected by PTRP to redevelop 2.19 million square feet of space within 74 acres comprising the park’s northern district [BRN, Dec. 3, 2007].
This past winter, after the economy soured, Struever Bros. pulled out of the project, which envisioned transforming part of a former RJ Reynolds campus into a mix of biomedical, residential, and neighborhood retail space. The project was part of a larger plan completed in 2003 by Sasaki Associates for a total build-out of 5.7 million square feet in three sections or districts totaling 230 acres. The full build-out is projected to create more than 27,000 new jobs over the next 25 to 30 years, with a total economic impact of more than $1.6 billion, according to a WFUHS consultant, Economics Research Associates of Washington, DC.
Neither the Struever Bros. pullout nor the resulting delay in breaking ground for he expansion were factors in the layoffs and cutbacks, Edgeton said.
"Discussions with Wexford continue, and we hope to firm up plans later this year for a mixed-use rehab of former RJR buildings in the North District, as was already anticipated," Edgeton told BRN.
PTRP now encompasses six buildings totaling 554,000 square feet of wet lab, office, meeting, and residential space, all within the central district. According to a report released by WFUHS parent Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center earlier this month, the research park is home to 763 salaried employees working in 41 life-sci companies and Wake Forest University academic outposts — from Targacept, the park's largest business tenant, to the Armed Forces Institute for Regenerative Medicine and Wake Forest University's Institute for Regenerative Medicine and Lipid Sciences Program.
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Dean remains chairman of the North Carolina Research Parks Network, a coalition aimed at helping PTRP, RTP, and the state's five other research parks brand and locate technology resources statewide, and thus boost the life sciences and other tech sectors [BRN, Jan. 26] Earlier this month he was elected to a two-year term as president of the North American division of the International Association of Science Parks.
Edgeton would not confirm the names and positions of the support staffers laid off. The News & Record newspaper of Greensboro identified one of the employees as PTRP's marketing director, Nancy Johnston, and said the other staffers, which it did not name, were a project manager and an administrative assistant.
"Although the Park is an entity unto itself, it is supported by Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which, like all academic medical organizations, is facing challenges from the current economy," said Edgeton, who is also executive vice president at Wake Forest University Health Sciences.
Days before the PTRP announcement, WFUHS' parent Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center disclosed some of those challenges in a report highlighting the amount of "community health benefits" or charity care and health outreach, it provided for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2008.
According to the Community Benefits Report, WFUHS accounted for $41 million of the total $110.6 million in community health benefits provided by the med center, not counting $34.6 million in uncompensated care for patients who did not pay for services and did not pursue charity care status.
More than half of the $41 million in community health benefits attributable to WFUHS, or $21.5 million, reflected research costs for programs ranging from the regenerative medicine institute — whose director, Anthony Atala, has been a key leader in the Triad's development of a life-sci cluster — to the Comprehensive Cancer Center, Heart Center, and Public Health Sciences units.
Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is operated by the North Carolina Baptist Hospital and the School of Medicine at Wake Forest University. The university has seen its endowment fall by 24 percent over the last six months of 2008, to $1.27 billion. In January of this year, the school cut its budget by 5 percent and froze hiring for staff, though not faculty.
Wake Forest's research presence at PTRP also includes the Babcock Demon Incubator, which operates under the WFU Babcock School of Management’s Angell Center for Entrepreneurship. In April, the BDI won $70,578 from the state-funded North Carolina Biotechnology Center, matched with $35,739 from the incubator itself, toward equipment allowing for the expansion of the 780-square-foot wet lab announced last year [BRN, Sept. 22, 2008], with an eye to accommodating multiple startup life sciences and nanotechnology companies.
BDI is one of two incubators at PTRP; the other is the Wet Lab LaunchPad, which has accommodated later-stage startups at a cost lower than the research park's standard lab space since opening more than 18 months ago [BRN, Dec. 31, 2007].
Edgeton said the cutbacks at PTRP did not signify that the Triad region — anchored by the cities of Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and High Point — could not build up its own life-sci cluster, as RTP has done successfully over the past half-century.
In interviews with BRN, three business groups that serve life sciences employers in and around Winston-Salem agreed that PTRP's retrenchment from earlier expansion plans doesn't signify a broader retreat from building a biocluster in the Triad region.
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Donald Kirkman, president and CEO of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, cited the presence of 87 life-sci companies within the 12 counties served by his group, the region's primary economic development marketing organization, in addition to the Wake Forest departments.
"We have a lot of activity throughout the entire 12-county region that goes far beyond the work of that research park, although the research park is certainly a very important anchor asset for us. I don’t think that will impede the recruitment efforts of Winston-Salem, Forsyth County, or the research park," Kirkman said on Thursday. "The region is continuing to see very robust activity in biotechnology and nanobiotechnology."
He cited Becton Dickinson's June 9 announcement that it would add 20 jobs this fall, and as many as 100 in the near future, in the Alamance County community of Mebane, NC. BD will spend $20 million to buy a 100,000-square-foot building, at 1022 Corporate Park Drive within the North Carolina Industrial Park, where it will base 40 employees — half to be shifted from Burlington, NC, the rest to be hired starting this summer — focused on assembling lab instruments for use in detecting cancer. The building can be expanded by an additional 50,000 square feet. Next to the building, BD bought about 7 acres for a future expansion.
The regional biocluster, he said, may well evolve toward more nanobiotech activity, as three regional academic institutions advance in their development of the North Carolina Center of Innovation in Nanobiotechnology, or COIN. The consortium earlier this month won a $2.5 million, four-year grant from the state-funded North Carolina Biotechnology Center toward the second phase of enabling COIN to establish itself as an independent, self-sustaining entity that will help commercialize nanobiotech research from the state's universities [See BRN sister publication Biotech Transfer Week, June 17].
North Carolina A&T State University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro joined with Wake Forest University to develop COIN in 2007 [BRN, Nov. 5, 2007], through a consortium formed to advance nanotech collaborations between the schools. COIN's executive director, Brooks Adams, was named earlier this year [BRN, March 9].
NCA&T and UNCG have established the Joint School for Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, a roughly $60 million, two-campus collaboration focusing on nanotechnology.
"I anticipate, later this summer, announcements of some targeted initiatives to really jumpstart the activity at the park while they work through the physical planning and infrastructure development at the park itself," Kirkman said. "You'll be hearing in the coming months about some significant new initiatives coming out of Winston-Salem that will be very much focused on the research park, and trying to grow the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the nanobio- and nanomedical competencies of Wake Forest."
He and leaders of two business groups serving the Winston-Salem metro area said they expected Winston-Salem and the Triad to grow their life-sci clusters through a mix of employers already in place and new arrivals to the region.
"I don't think we will lose a step at all in terms of being able to serve a client that has an interest in our park and our community as a bio- or life science location," said Bob Leak Jr., president of Winston-Salem Business, the economic development organization that promotes Winston-Salem and the rest of Forsyth County.
In an interview Tuesday, Leak said that the Triad has attractions for life-sci companies allowing it to stand out from RTP. While the Triad's overall cost is "maybe 8 to 10 percent" below RTP's, and facility costs are just 5 to 10 percent below those of the Research Triangle region, housing costs are significantly cheaper at "15 to 20 percent less," he said.
"We have always seen ourselves as kind of a complementary location to companies that want to be near Research Triangle Park, but maybe don’t want to compete with some of the costs associated with that park, or maybe being a small company in a big pond, if you will," Leak told BRN. "Small to medium sized companies can be players in our park without being under the shadow of the big [GlaxoSmithKlines] and those kinds of [companies]."
"We've really promoted ourselves as a location that provides access to RTP, without some of the congestion and cost issues that are associated with physically being in RTP and Charlotte," Leak added. "There's not a lot of traffic congestion here, compared with around Charlotte and RTP. That's always been a positive for us."
While Winston-Salem Business focuses on marketing Winston-Salem and Forsyth County externally, existing businesses in the region's life sciences and other industries are the focus of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce.
"We are still developing a biotech and a life science cluster here. None of our plans have changed," Peggy Low, the chamber's senior vice president of technology and strategic initiatives, told BRN. "We do have a tougher economy, and a few new challenges, but we're continuing to move ahead. We still have a lot of good companies that are doing very well."
Low said the chamber's Eighth Annual Technology Briefing, which took place March 24, featured presentations from life sciences companies among the 10 tech-based businesses invited. The industry's presence is significant enough within Winston-Salem, Low said, that one of the presenting companies at the briefing, Out of Our Mind Animation Studios, has developed video simulations for life-sci companies.
Also aiding the Triad's cluster development, Low said, has been the ability of companies to find local workers through a pair of community colleges. Alamance Community College is the state's oldest biotech program, with some 275 graduates over the past 24 years. The region is also home to the largest two-year school life-sci program at Forsyth Tech Community College, which has graduated more than 100 students, according to a presentation based on a Tracking Study of Biotech Graduates, published this month.