The head of a nationwide consortium of community colleges focusing on life-science workforce training expressed confidence last week that it can find elsewhere some new funding after its one-time federal grant expires Sept. 30 — despite being turned down earlier this year for a $9.7 million grant intended to fund an expansion.
The National Center for the Biotechnology Workforce is in talks with an undisclosed government source that has expressed interest in funding the operations of its headquarters, based within Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, NC, including its branding and image.
“We’re presently negotiating a way forward with a party,” executive director R.H. (Russ) Read told BioRegion News last week. “It looks like we have a way to go forward.”
Read would not identify his prospective funding source, but said its identity “wouldn’t be a big surprise to everybody.”
He added that the funding would not cover the training programs offered by the consortium’s five participating community colleges — though it “might open the avenue to be able to re-bridge back to these other centers, to maybe expand through collateral partnerships.”
“We could take the existing five and also we could actually be additive if we could find clever other ways, like very tangential collaborative ways of working together,” Read said. “If that needs funding, and usually it takes funding, we’ll just have to apply for more grants. But the concept of the center will be sustained.”
Not so, however, the center’s more ambitious plan to expand into four additional community colleges by creating new “centers of innovation.” The colleges include Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington; BioOhio, the state’s life sciences industry group, and a syndicate of nine Ohio community colleges; Temple College, in Texas; and Utah’s Salt Lake City Community College. Such an expansion was the reason why the center sought a $9.7 million federal grant earlier this year, only to be turned down.
Ivy Tech was to have specialized in regulatory affairs; the Ohio syndicate was to specialize in medical devices and diagnostics; Temple College on medical lab certification and clinical trials; and Utah on offering the services of a contract research organization.
The grant request is almost four times the $2.5 million average award that the initiative told applicants it would typically fund. “We realized it was a shot in the dark,” Read said, adding that the consortium did not err by pursuing its larger-than-average request, since the amount sought was what was needed to fund the expansion.
“We’ll just have to apply for more grants. But the concept of the center will be sustained.”
“If we had shot for less, we would have had to restructure what we were doing,” he said. “We had a lot of inquiries from people in a lot of different community colleges. They wanted to participate in what we were doing. They came and visited, and they loved what we were doing.”
Funds for the grant would have come from the President's Community-based Job Training Grants Initiative, a program overseen by the US Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration. It was another ETA grant program, the President’s High Growth Job Training Initiative, through which the consortium in 2004 received the $5 million under which it operates today. That funding was never meant to be renewable, however, and will run out with the Sept. 30 end of the current federal fiscal year.
The initiative, a program of the US Department of Labor, seeks to fund academic-industry workforce training partnerships in industries projected to need large numbers of new workers.
On March 11, the ETA announced $125 million in awards to 69 community colleges and community-based institutions nationwide out of 341 that sought the grants since the competition was announced last August. The only life-science winner was Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, Mass., which racked up nearly $1.6 million toward the biotechnology/biomanufacturing program it operates in partnership with Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.
ETA has yet to be informed of the details of talks with the other potential funder, Read said. “We need to also have this discussion with them and bring them up to speed on what the potential is. That might excite them.”
The biotech workforce center hopes to show ETA that its member community colleges will sustain their programs with or without funding from the agency past Sept. 30.
Other arguments NCBW hopes will resonate with the agency: The consortium stretched its current grant four years, instead of the typical two- to three-year period. Also, it leveraged at least $2, and sometimes close to $4, for every dollar from the current grant.
“We would be in the position to already have offered the fact that we already worked closely together in that we can lobby together as a group or we can write grants, because we’re used to doing it,” Read said. “We know how to work together. It opens a whole avenue of promise.
“I would say by the middle to the end of July, everything will become crystal clear” regarding the consortium’s future funding, Read added.
The consortium operates from a 17,000-square-foot Biotech Research and Development Training Center, opened in 2006 on the campus of Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, NC.
Forsyth Tech is one of the five community colleges that host biotech workforce centers through NCBW, focusing on R&D, while Bellevue (Wash.) Community College specializes in bioinformatics; Iowa’s Indian Hills Community College, in agricultural biotech; San Diego’s Mira Costa Community College, in bioprocessing; and New Hampshire Technical College, in biomanufacturing.
According to NCBW, its community college members have graduated a combined 400 students who have completed both certificate and associates degree programs. Another approximately 100 students are taking those programs, though the number of graduates each year has ranged between 30 and 40.
Last year 16 of those graduates came from one school, Forsyth Tech. It offers North Carolina’s largest biotech training program, a two-year associate in applied science with coursework that includes animal handling, chromatography, immunology, instrumentation and laboratory mathematics, molecular biology, and tissue culture.
Under the rejected grant proposal, Forsyth Tech was to have created new centers specializing in nanobiotechnology and regenerative medicine.
In addition, about 1,000 teachers and 12,000 middle- and high-school students have been exposed to the colleges’ biotech career training programs through the consortium.
NCBW’s work fits in with what two top national observers of the life-science market said was necessary for the region that includes Forsyth Tech to emerge as a top biotech cluster. Addressing a workforce training conference in February, Steven Burrill, CEO of life-science investor Burrill and Company, and Scott Sarazen, global biotechnology markets leader with Ernst and Young, agreed that North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad region must develop a steady pipeline of entrepreneurs capable of building new life-science companies if the region is to become the state’s third biotech hotbed [BRN, Feb. 11].