By SHAILA DEWAN
Published: June 10, 2009
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. — Where a textile mill once drove the economy of this blue-collar town northeast of Charlotte, an imposing neoclassical complex is rising, filled with fine art, Italian marble and multimillion-dollar laboratory equipment. Three buildings, one topped by a giant dome, form the beginnings of what has been nicknamed the Biopolis, a research campus dedicated to biotechnology.
At $500 million and counting, the Biopolis, officially called the North Carolina Research Campus, is a product of a national race to attract the biotechnology industry, a current grail of economic development.
Cities like Shreveport, La., and Huntsville, Ala., are also gambling millions in taxpayer dollars on if-we-build-it-they-will-come research parks and wet laboratories, which hold the promise of low-pollution workplaces and high salaries.
At a recent global biotech convention in Atlanta, 27 states, including Hawaii and Oklahoma, paid as much as $100,000 each to entice companies on the exhibition floor. All this for a highly risky industry that has turned a profit only one year in the past four decades.
Skeptics cite two major problems with the race for biotech. First, the industry is highly concentrated in established epicenters like Boston, San Diego and San Francisco, which offer not just scientific talent but also executives who know how to steer drugs through the arduous approval process.
“Most of these states probably don’t stand much of a chance to develop a viable biotech industry,” said Gary P. Pisano, a Harvard Business School professor and the author of “Science Business: The Promise, the Reality and the Future of Biotech.”
“You can always get a few top people,” Mr. Pisano said, “but you need a lot of critical mass.”
Second, biotech is a relatively tiny industry with a lengthy product-development process, and even in its largest clusters offers only a fraction of the jobs of traditional manufacturing. In the United States, only 43 biotechnology companies employ more than 1,000 people, according to BioAbility, a consulting firm in the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. More here.