Biotechnology, the application of modern molecular and cellular biology to the development of human therapeutics and diagnostics, has become a familiar term on Wall Street, where biotech companies are gaining a great deal of attention from investors who are veering away from the trendy dot-com companies and taking stock in the future of health care.
The economic impact of the biotech industry on the U.S. economy is substantial, with 437,400 jobs generated in 1999; $47 billion in additional revenue; $11 billion in research and development spending and $10 billion in tax revenue, according to a recent Ernst & Young report.
The rapid growth of the biotechnology industry, which has doubled in size since 1993, is now making its mark in South Carolina. According to David Ginn, president and CEO of the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, approximately two dozen biotechnology companies now operate in Charleston, Columbia and the upstate.
“We have certainly shifted our focus in the past year to recruit biotechnology companies to the Charleston area,” he says. “It’s a growth industry that produces companies that are strong corporate and environmental citizens.”
Ginn says Charleston is an ideal location for the biotech industry because it has all the ingredients these companies require, including a research medical university—MUSC—and a quality of life that attracts people to he area.
“It’s vital in the industry to have a medical university nearby to support research efforts,” he says. “A place like Charleston has the ability to attract the top medical professionals and keep them here because of the superior quality of life.”
Additionally, the industry has the ability to link the private sector with researchers and scientists by forming partnerships between private corporations and public research universities that share the common goal of curing diseases.
“The better companies have top scientists in the medical field teamed with very strong business people, and that combination makes for a very powerful corporation,” Ginn says.
One of the top biotech companies in the Charleston area is GenPhar, established three years ago in Mount Pleasant by Dr. John Y. Dong.
“The biotech industry may just be what carries South Carolina into the new millennium,” says Dong, a former biomedical researcher at the University of California at San Francisco.
GenPhar, which has developed three vaccine platforms since its inception, will introduce an anti-AIDS drug resistance product early next year, according to Dong, who says research being conducted at GenPhar has the potential to bring worldwide attention to Charleston.
“Although Charleston has not been fully recognized in the biotech industry,” he says, “my hope is that people will look at examples in other states and see how small start-up companies can become very successful.”
According to Dr. William Shannon, GenPhar’s vice president of clinical and scientific affairs, attracting additional biotech companies to the area leads to a “clustering” effect that will aid in research and product development.
“Once you have some anchor companies, others will come,” says Shannon. “Clustering is advantageous to the biotech industry because it is viewed as a support network.”
Biotech companies don’t actually compete with each other in the same sense that traditional businesses do because there is such a wide variety of research and products, Shannon adds. By sharing resources and ideas, biotech companies have the ability to bridge industry and academics by applying research to benefit mankind through product development. Some of the research conducted by Charleston-based biotech companies includes cancer diagnostics, viral disease vaccines and drug resistance testing.
Forming partnerships with MUSC allows biotech companies to take advantage of established research facilities while developing products that require tremendous funding and scientific research.
According to Dr. Kenneth Roozen, executive director of MUSC’s Foundation for Research Development, most biotech companies have formed out of medical research companies like Harvard, MIT and UCSF. In Charleston, MUSC is emerging as a highly competitive research facility, which is a major driving force behind biotech companies.
“Most biotech companies in Charleston have or have had some relationship with MUSC,” he says. “Some of these companies are virtual, in that they have a board and are incorporated but they don’t have a facility so they partner themselves with the university.”
Dr. Roozen says Charleston can be compared to cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Richmond, Birmingham and Knoxville in its growing biotech industry. The growth, he says, will contribute to the general economic development of South Carolina.
“At MUSC, we are starting to bridge the gap between the public university and the private sector,” he says. “Charleston is ready to support this industry—we’ve begun to get the infrastructure in place.”
The possibilities are unlimited, according to Roozen. As the general public embraces the biotech industry, it’s a win-win for everyone involved, he says. “Charleston is becoming part of the biomedical map, which will have a positive impact on the community.”