2013 was the year of biotech in Caldwell County

Local companies' rapid growth made headlines
Dec. 26, 2013 @ 08:29 AM

Caldwell County's economy remains dominated by manufacturing, especially furniture making.

But 2013 was the year that biotechnology made a splash as a rapidly growing segment of the county's economy.

Employing approximately 350 people, the four biotech and life sciences companies in the county are Adhezion Biomedical, a producer of medical devices; Exela Pharma Sciences, a pharmaceutical product manufacturer; Foothills Bio-Energies, a renewable energy company; and Greer Laboratories, a producer of immunotherapy products.

Exela Pharma Sciences made headlines in the spring when it announced it was expanding by more than 40 jobs and bought the former headquarters of Broyhill Furniture Industries on U.S. 321 in Lenoir, with plans to spend $8.5 million renovating the building.

Greer announced topped that with plans for a 125-job expansion and $30 million investment, including a new corporate headquarters.

Adhezion Biomedical announced 15 new jobs.

West of Winston-Salem and Charlotte, Caldwell County has the most biotechnology jobs aside from McDowell County, where a single company, Baxter, employs nearly 2,000 people manufacturing products for intravenous drugs, according to the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, a group formed more than 25 years ago to help advance the biotechnology industry in North Carolina.

In Caldwell, though, the numbers are rising.

According to the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission, three biotech companies in the county increased their labor force by 15 percent in just the second and third quarters of 2013.

That rate of growth is "way better than most," said Deborah Murray, executive director of the EDC. Of the 300 jobs that Caldwell County gained from July to October, about 60 were in three biotech companies.

But the key takeaway, Murray says, is the quality of the jobs, and their role in keeping Caldwell's economy sustainable.

"These are 21st- and 22nd-century jobs," Murray said. "So it's diversification at a different level, with foreseeable, sustainable future and something new that's available to our young people that have those talents and skills."

At Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute, educators have teamed up with Greer Labs to introduce the Pharma Sciences Institute, started earlier this year. The 96-hour course focuses on chemistry, microbiology and health concepts, as well as job readiness and career training to prepare students for employment with a company that uses sterile processes and clean rooms.

A number of features of Lenoir and the county make it an attractive area for biotech and life sciences companies, including quality and productivity of the workforce, access to transportation networks, quality electrical infrastructure and high-speed telecommunications, said Dale Carroll, executive director of the western office of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

“We just have to make it known, the word has to get out what a good thing we have going in Caldwell County so that these pharmaceutical companies don’t just go to the Research Triangle,” said Joe Holbrook, an economic development representative for the N.C. Biotech Center that represents Caldwell and surrounding counties.

One of the biggest positive impacts are the quality of the jobs that biotech companies supply, requiring a skilled workforce and paying relatively high salaries, usually around $40,000 per year, Holbrook said.

That, coupled with the supporting businesses that biotech calls for, including usage of construction, electrical, plumbing, and HVAC companies, means that biotech companies are a functioning cog in the recovery machinery of Caldwell’s economy.

Diversification of the economy is another benefit of the expanding biotech sector in Caldwell County, and an important one.

Diversification is important because some companies do well at some times, and others do well at other times. Relying too much on one industry leaves an area open to big economic swings, Holbrook said, a lesson Lenoir and Caldwell County learned well when thousands of furniture jobs were lost just a few years after the local unemployment rate was around 2 percent and furniture companies were hiring “every warm body that walked in the door.”