According to a panel of insiders, Wilmington has a clinical research community indeed. If that isn’t common knowledge, perhaps blame all the focus on Research Triangle Park (RTP), the Raleigh-area epicenter of science clustering more than 170 global companies.
Greater Wilmington might not measure up, but it can increase its visibility, and from there expand its presence in the clinical market, experts assembled at UNCW Thursday morning told an audience of 200.
“A lot of people will sit here and think we’re in the shadows of RTP. We don’t have to be,” said Julie Orr, president and CEO of Modoc Research Services Inc., a Wilmington-based company that deals in early-phase drug development. “But we have to be more visible.”
Orr was one of four panelists specializing in contract research organizations (CROs) on stage at UNCW Thursday for a conference on building economic clusters here. In spirit, Wilmington City Councilwoman Laura Padgett presented a proclamation from her board that the week of Oct. 7 is “Clinical Research Week” to highlight work among parties, including the university, to expand the industry and talent pool here.
“This industry cluster is vital to southeastern North Carolina,” said Charles Hardy, founding dean of UNCW’s College of Health and Human Services.
He counted more than 20 CROs regionally employing 2,500 people, and 36 clinical research support companies in the Wilmington area employing another 200. Those support companies offer specialized services like biostatistics, clinical trial data management, lab testing and medical writing, Hardy said.
He also noted 18 drug, medical device and testing development companies here that employ more than 90 people and cited the Bureau of Labor Statistics in saying employees in the local clinical research industry averaged an annual income beyond $85,000 (a 2009 figure).
Orr and others suggested these local companies need greater awareness of each other so they can collaborate and refer clients within that network, essentially making Wilmington a sort of one-stop shop for clinical research and product development needs. “There are so many companies here that can play parts,” she said.
Connecting dots as such can lead to greater awareness from outsiders, or from students working their ways into the field, she said.
“Clinical resarch isn’t one track,” said Orr. “You can get into clinical research, and over the course of your career you can move from management, to clinical operations, to training, to regulatory. So there’s a vast number of variances you can do over the course of your career. And I think when people come here, they see that, that there are other opportunities. It’s not just tracked into one particular company or one particular genre.”
Chuck Bon, president of Biostudy Solutions, a pharmaceuticals consulting and study company with seven full-time employees in downtown Wilmington, called UNCW “one of the biggest resources that we have in this area” and noted internships that have helped train studied students to perform the specialized work the company demands.
But he said a lot of the graduates he sees with the raw skills for the job carry bachelor’s degrees only; this area could use a full-on master’s program in statistics, he said.
“The master’s program to me is critically important to retain the talent in the area,” Bon said. Otherwise, young minds might leave to earn that diploma. He pointed out his company, and others similar, have an interest in proficient, job-ready individuals within this market.
UNCW currently offers 35 master degree programs, including biology, chemistry, mathematics, and clinical research and product development. It offers a certificate program in applied statistics. Bon said he appreciated the school’s dialogue with CROs to learn how programs might be added or tweaked to fit the needs of specialized local employers.
UNCW lecturer Barbara Pennington–formerly of PPD, the global pharmaceutical company headquartered in Wilmington–pointed out that the university is already a force in the field, and that it sometimes surprises people that the school has a clinical research program.
“It’s such a draw for the area for companies, because we place unpaid internships,” Pennington said. “And so we have our interns, our students, go out their senior year as interns … and that’s a way that these companies can actually get to know these students, and hopefully, eventually, hire them.”
But, like the industry itself, the program needs more visibility, she said.
“I think we’re even a little bit hiding under a bush, and one of the things that we can do is really tout the program here at UNCW,” said Pennington. “I think it’s a real drawing card.”
Producing bright minds is the best premium an individual community can offer CROs and the clinical research community, said Yousry Sayed, president of Wilmington analysis and testing company Quality Chemical Laboratories.
That’s more so than cash incentives, he suggested.
“People think everything has to do with getting a tax break and finding out some source of funding,” Sayed said at UNCW Thursday. “Our [biggest] limitation … is actually expertise.”
He continued: “We look for good, highly qualified individuals. We can’t get them fast enough.”
The conversation essentially mirrored a recent one from the tech sector of Wilmington, which has said this area needs to address a deficit of knowledge in the field, locally. Otherwise, many tech positions–for software development, for instance–will be filled with applicants from the outside, from places like the Raleigh-Durham area that breed skilled individuals in droves.
UNCW officials said Thursday the effort to improve the CRO presence here is in part headed by the N.C. Coast Clinical Research Initiative, an economic development group centered in the state’s southeast. It’s in collaboration with the N.C. Biotechnology Center’s Southeastern Office and UNCW.
Click here for a list the initiative prepared of related companies in, and statistics for, this region.