MARBIONC seeks to attract bio-tech industry

MARBIONC, the newest addition to the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s CREST Research Park, is scheduled for completion in Jan. 2013, capable of reaching full occupancy by March 2013. This 69,000-square foot state-of-the-art research facility, located off of Masonboro Loop Road, is a $30 million public/private business venture designed to use the unique geographic location of Wilmington to build and strengthen it’s economy.

“[Marine biotechnology is] an industry that’s waiting to happen,” said Randall Johnson, director of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s southeastern office during UNCW’s recent economic development conference. “It’s applications are immense, opportunities huge.” 

Forty percent of the MARBIONC building is currently occupied by it’s anchor tenant, state-funded MARBIONC Economic Development Group. Fifty percent of the remaining area is divided into 17 880 - 1,760-square foot laboratories which are available for lease by commercial entities. MARBIONC is currently in discussion with several commercial partners, but with full operation of the facility not expected until March, none have signed a lease yet.

“We’re looking for a dynamic group,” said Steven Fontana, Senior Technology Development Officer for CREST Research Park. “[A potential leaser] could be an East Coast lab for a primarily West Coast bio-tech company, a small to midsize company, a start-up or a spin-out from one of our development efforts that’s ongoing with the MARBIONC group right now.”

Fontana explained that part of the attraction of the MARBIONC building to potential leasers is its core facilities, which contain high-dollar analytical tools. While many bio-tech companies have to send samples away to be tested and wait to hear the results, tenants will be able to run many samples on site, and have access to UNCW personnel who can help analyze data. 

Carolina Algae, LLC is one local marine biotechnology start-up that is contemplating leasing space at MARBIONC. Started by Dr. Alan Stout of Leland and Dr. Kim Jones of Southport, Carolina Algae aims to process algae to make, among other products, vitamins and nutraceuticals. Stout explained that some forms of algae are very nutritious, and that some people in Japan consume raw algae as a nutritional supplement. 

The temperature, sunlight and brackish water surrounding Wilmington make it a very suitable area to growing algae. Stout said he’s not looking for investors at the moment, but rather strategic partners who believe in the mission of his company.

“[Our mission is] in green chemistry,” Stout said, “growing jobs in this area, making higher value products out of plants that grow naturally in this area.”

Stout is also the current vice president of Glycotech, Inc, a Leland based operation that manufactures exclusively for California-based Amyris. Amyris is a renewable products company that aims to replace petroleum-sourced products with green alternatives. Stout’s work involves fermenting algae to make a product called farnefene, which can then be used to make a variety of products, including cosmetics, lubricants, polymers, bio-diesel and jet fuel. 

An economic study conducted by Dr. Woody Hall, senior economist with the Swain Center for Business and Economic Services, shows that the economic impact of an investment in marine biotechnology for the Wilmington metropolitan area — which for the purposes of the study includes Pender, Brunswick and New Hanover counties — associated with $10 million in sales for firms in that sector, would support an additional $7.9 million in output for a total impact of $17.9 million.

That $10 million in sales would require around 60 employees, which would support an additional 80 jobs, creating a total employment impact of 140 jobs. The resulting impact on labor income, including wages, salaries and self-employment income, would be approximately $8.4 million.

“It’s fairly sophisticated,” Hall said.