Biotech industry a harbinger of changing county economy

Sep. 26, 2013 @ 07:00 PM

While furniture is still the largest sector of manufacturing in Caldwell County, medical, biotechnology and related businesses are becoming a larger player in a diversifying economy, said Deborah Murray, executive director of the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission.

“Adhezion Biomedical, Exela (Pharma Sciences) and Greer (Laboratories) are all growing and expanding, and we take great favor in promoting all manufacturing, but particularly when we’re able to help build and expand something that helps us diversify our local economy,” Murray said.

In North Carolina, the biotech sector has been gaining strength. There are more than 500 companies currently in the state, accounting for 237,665 jobs, $59 billion in business volume and $1.7 billion in taxes generated for state and local governments, according to a report from the Battelle Institute for the N.C. Department of Commerce.

But those businesses are more associated in many minds with places like Research Triangle Park, not Caldwell County, once home to the largest privately held furniture company in the world.

But biotech is one of the Caldwell County EDC’s target areas for development, a list that also includes industries like green technology, plastics, food processing and woodworking. And there is a small but solid base to build on.

Greer, a pharmaceutical company focused on allergy immunotherapy products and services, announced Monday it will keep its corporate headquarters together with its manufacturing in Lenoir after a 125-job, $30-million expansion. Its current and future buildings are just off U.S. 321, nearly across the highway from the former Broyhill Furniture Industries headquarters, recently purchased by Exela Pharma Sciences and undergoing renovations as part of a 40-job, $8.5 million expansion. And Adhezion Biomedical in Hudson, a medical device company focused on surgical and wound adhesives and sealants, said earlier this summer that it has some new business that could help it grow by up to 20 new jobs.

The growth of biotech in the Caldwell County job market gains support from Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute's Pharma Sciences Institute, which started earlier this year with help from Greer. The 96-hour course blends the basics of manufacturing and the fundamentals of science. Among other things, it teaches job-readiness skills such as business ethics and resume writing and helps students learn the “language of manufacturing” and good manufacturing practices in addition to the finer points of biotech and pharmaceutical skills, said Jeff Holman, instructor and vocational and technical director for CCCTI’s Corporate and Continuing Education Division.

Murray said that biotech companies alone are not the long-term solution to the long-term economic woes in the county, just a part of it.

“I just expect this (biotech) to be something we have developed as a bigger piece of the pie than it has been,” Murray said.

There are already two more potential biotech companies the EDC is working with, Murray said — both start-ups in the early stages of launching.