Reflections on RTP

7/24/14

Having moved to the Research Triangle Park region in 1987 when my husband was recruited to Glaxo, I now realize that we chose “the right place at the right time.” I started a post-doctorial fellowship at UNC-Chapel Hill and eventually became a clinical scientist at Burroughs Wellcome, and we enjoyed raising a family in Chapel Hill. At the time, the region was just beginning to attract newer companies, but there was minimal corporate-academic interaction. The ecosystem has grown substantially over the past 25 years, driven in part by robust collaborations between industry and academia. A symbiotic relationship now exists that enhances job opportunities and keeps our unemployment rate relatively low.

In this regard, it is worth citing interesting research conducted by two UNC Chapel Hill faculty, Maryann Feldman and Nichola Lowe (“Triangulating Regional Economies: The Promise of Digital Data” forthcoming in Research Policy and “Firm Strategy and the Wealth of Regions,” working paper). These researchers have collected and analyzed an extensive data set that demonstrates the power of anchor companies and their interactions with flourishing academic and medical centers in a region. The first wave of company formation occurred in 1995 following the Glaxo Wellcome merger. It was during this period that I had the opportunity to join a start-up out of UNC-Chapel Hill that I would ultimately take public in 2000. Feldman and Lowe’s research indicates a spawning of over 140 companies by former employees-turned-entrepreneurs from GlaxoSmithKline and its antecedent companies. In some cases, scientists licensed innovations from Glaxo Wellcome to start their new ventures (United Therapeutics, for example, licensed a former Wellcome compound that would become a blockbuster new treatment for pulmonary hypertension). In other cases, they found technologies or core platforms from the local universities such as Duke University (examples: Trimeris and Phase Bio) and UNC-Chapel Hill (examples: Inspire Pharmaceuticals, Viamet, Parion Sciences, and Liquidia).

These companies raised more than $4 billion in venture capital; six of them went public, while 24 were merged/acquired over time. A few examples include Triangle Pharmaceuticals, founded by Burroughs Wellcome R&D executives (acquired by Gilead following the IPO); Chimerix, founded by Glaxo Wellcome scientists (which went public last year and whose board Chair is the former CEO of Glaxo); and Furiex, founded by a former Glaxo and PPD (Pharmaceutical Product Development) executive, which was recently acquired by Forest Labs/Actavis. I fully expect a few more IPOs in our region this year as well as strong corporate deal flow.

My personal belief is that the growth in our region will continue—if not proliferate—over the next decade. Many of the new companies have licensed technology from UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke,and/or North Carolina State University, and the number of spinouts from these universities has continued to increase. Several of those startups have gone public as well (example: Aerie Pharmaceuticals out of Duke). Based on work conducted by the Chancellor’s Innovation Circle at UNC-Chapel Hill, the number of spinout companies has more than tripled during the last several years. Further, the Carolina Express License, introduced in 2011, has significantly reduced the timeframe required for the out-licensing process.

In addition, with the greater emphasis on outsourcing certain aspects of biomedical research and clinical site management, the Contract Research Organization industry, in particular, has been booming for years in the Triangle. With approximately 150 large and small CROs in our region, we have the largest concentration of these companies in the world. Many of their employees once worked for Glaxo, Wellcome, GSK, or secondary spawns of those companies. Thus, the work force is highly experienced.

More recently, information technology startups have been forming in abundance, creating more diversity of companies in the region. In downtown Durham alone, we have roughly 100 tech startups in a 1-mile radius. Further, there is a convergence between healthcare and IT, which is creating new types of ventures.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that theses successes are not only due to the concentration of technology and academic institutions, but are also the result of the Triangle’s extensive cultural diversity. A fantastic music scene and a highly engaging artistic community provide cultural amenities. There are extensive college and professional sports venues, as well.

The mix of these elements helps to stimulate this verdant ecosystem and will continue to foster strong entrepreneurial enterprises. We cannot underestimate the importance of our region being considered a great place to live. To underscore this point, the former CEO of Burroughs Wellcome and two former Glaxo CEOs are still contributing to our ecosystem in a myriad of ways. They are active partners of venture capital firms, serve as board chairs of biotech/biopharma companies, and are actively involved in various non-profit boards and initiatives such as the RTP Foundation. These successful executives’ desire to give back and remain engaged is a huge boost, as they are ideal mentors for the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders.

Seasoned entrepreneur and biotech executive, Christy Shaffer, Ph.D. has over 20 years of experience in the life science industry. She is the Managing Director of Hatteras Discovery and Venture Partner at Hatteras Venture Partners. Follow @

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  • Don Alexander

    Great overview of the evolution of RTP’s life sciences sector. The area is also very strong in direct and contract drug product manufacturing.