Charleston USA has earned a reputation as a hard-hitter in attracting foreign investment in recent years. Yet with a population of around 730,000, the Charleston metropolitan area is only the 78th-largest in the United States, and has been known in the past more for its appeal to international tourists than as an industrial hub. Could biomedical companies soon join blue-chip names from Boeing to Daimler, Google to Robert Bosch, in making the region their home?
“Charleston may not be the biggest region, says Mike Graney, vice president, global business development, at Charleston Regional Development Alliance, “But this has its advantages, making it easier for companies to conduct their business, network locally and gain access to key academics at the local Medical University of South Carolina [MUSC], for instance. And although we haven’t traditionally had a broad base in the biomedical sector, things are changing dramatically. There’s a whole variety of programs under way to ensure that we can supply all that companies require, in terms of specific skills and talents.”
Andy Reding, US general manager at Trumpf Medical Systems, which has had a presence in the region since 2000, has lived in Charleston for 20 years, and has witnessed the growth of the local business network over that time. He notes the region’s ability to draw in big name companies.
“It’s not really normal for an area of this size to get the Boeings, Daimlers, Volvos coming in,” he says. (Charleston is the only metro area in the world manufacturing both cars and wide body planes.) “But when people come here they become aware of all that Charleston has to offer. If you want to do business in the US, you really need to have a local presence, and the East Coast makes sense for European companies in terms of time zones and logistics. To me, Charleston feels like it’s moving forward, with new infrastructure, real estate and retail. There’s an amazing sense of momentum here.”
More than 800 bioscience companies and institutions employ 15,520 people with an average annual wage of $55,233 in South Carolina. Life sciences businesses and institutions impact 46,032 jobs, according to a 2012 study by the Battelle Institute. SC Bio, a state-level industry organization, says healthcare and the biomedical field are among the fastest-growing sectors in the state, with employment in life sciences having grown by 45 percent over the last 10 years.
Let's Get Technical
Such growth hasn't necessarily been borne out thus far in corporate facility investment projects. Since early 2012, Site Selection's Conway Projects Database has tracked just a handful in Charleston, including New World Pharmaceuticals ($21 million and 38 jobs at a new HQ) and Aeterna Zentaris ($1 million, 60 jobs in North Charleston), with similar numbers alighting in the metro areas of Columbia (the state capital), Greenville-Spartanburg and Fort Mill, part of the Charlotte, N.C., metro area.
Scrolling through the hundreds of projects that have come to the state in that time shows the strong presence of the automotive and mechanical/equipment sector. But that may prove to be a stepping-stone for the life sciences.
Reding recognizes the role of the local education system, and the skilled workforce the region is able to produce — particularly in areas like technical manufacturing and electro-mechanics. “The local high schools here are offering really good technical training in a bridge to the technical college — there’s great work going on in terms of workforce preparation. And companies are investing back into the system. Boeing, for instance, has made major investments in the local technical college.”
A key attraction for companies like Trumpf Medical is the potential for access to skills at MUSC, which, as the region's largest biomedical employer, with nearly 13,000 workers, carries out research projects worth more than $230 million a year. “We’re able to get a level of access here that I just don’t think would be possible in other metropolitan areas," says Reding. "MUSC has been very welcoming and open to working with us, and the hospitals here see it as part of their responsibility to help grow the local business community.”
Within MUSC, the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP) allows businesses to support relevant research programmes at the university, and the Foundation for Research Development (FRD) provides a platform for the marketing and licensing of MUSC technologies to corporate partners.
Since it became MUSC’s technology transfer office in 1998, FRD has filed patent applications on more than 320 technologies, executed 148 licenses and spun out more than 46 start-up companies. And the university has an increasingly impressive record in this area: Technologies developed through MUSC (and involving companies such as SphingoGene Inc, FirstString Research and MicroVide, LLC) obtained a record 69 patents in fiscal year 2015.
“To have so many technologies successfully go through such rigorous review, both domestically and abroad, speaks to the novelty of the technologies that are being created at MUSC,” said Jesse Goodwin, the research foundation’s deputy director.
Ready to Partner
MUSC’s reputation has led to collaborations and partnerships with companies worldwide that are choosing to make the university’s business-oriented programs a key part of their development strategy. Last year, after Aeterna Zentaris Inc, a specialty biopharmaceutical company developing novel treatments in oncology and endocrinology, chose to locate its newest North American business and global commercial operations in the area, it subsequently announced that it would transfer its discovery library of around 100,000 compounds to MUSC as part of a long-term research relationship.
And opportunities for collaboration with MUSC are set to increase, as it moves ahead with plans to create a Center for Medical Innovation and Entrepreneurialism, whose remit is to promote entrepreneurship, leverage the expertise of peer institutions and partner with industry.
At the same time, the university has set up a new unit focusing on developing and licensing new technologies in neuroscience, using a model which it is hoped will be scaled up to include other areas of study. In September the Institute for Applied Neuroscience (IAN) licensed a new spine surgery product to Amendia, Inc, a leading provider of innovative medical devices used during spinal surgical procedures.
“This first license is a validation of our unique innovation incubator/technology accelerator model, demonstrating our ability to transform ideas into valuable healthcare products and make a difference in patients’ lives," said IAN’s Chief Development Officer Ted Bird. "We have reviewed over 100 invention disclosures over the past two and a half years and have activated eight projects, six of which are ready for commercial licensing.” With this sort of success, IAN sees potential to expand out beyond its current focus exclusively on neuroscience technology, and to increase some of the work it currently undertakes for licensees, to develop their ideas with the help of IAN engineers.
Ted Bird is clear about the opportunity this, and the wider network in the Charleston Region, offers to biomedical businesses locating there. “In fact MUSC already offers companies located in the Charleston area an incredible resource," he says. "So overseas companies coming here are not only locating in an area where costs are competitive and it’s very easy to recruit, but they also have access to MUSC and its units, where there is fantastic potential for companies to establish themselves, carry out clinical trials and develop their products locally — and as a result, speed up the whole innovation and product development process.”
This article was written under the auspices of the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, with supplemental data provided by Site Selection/Conway Inc. Alison Semple is a business and media consultant specializing in international investment strategies. After starting her career in business journalism with the BBC and the Financial Times, she joined Oxford Intelligence, developing the company’s services for government agencies and companies worldwide, before becoming a Director at OCO Global, headquartered in Belfast. She currently works with a wide range of local and national authorities in Europe and North America, and is based in Oxford, UK.