Panel gives update on CRO activity


Talent and capital are two of the limiting factors for contract research and clinical research companies in the Wilmington area, according to panelists who spoke about their industry at Thursday’s Outlook conference at University of North Carolina Wilmington.

The annual conference, which this year focused on the growing presence of contract research organizations (CROs) in the region and the increasing number of support companies springing up to support them, featured videotaped statements from David Simmons, CEO of PPD, and Patrick Walsh, CEO of AAIPharma.

The audience also heard from owners of three smaller companies and from a UNCW educator who is helping expand programs at UNCW to train students for careers in the industry. All emphasized the tremendous growth of the CRO cluster – a term used to describe a geographically concentration of interrelated businesses working for a common purpose and drawing upon a shared talent pool. They also emphasized the challenges of finding needed capital, especially from grants, and of finding enough talented, skilled individuals to enable the company to grow.

Panelists represented three members of the CRO cluster: Chuck Bon, founder of Biostudy Solutions; Julie Orr, founder of Modoc Research; Yousry Sayed, founder of Quality Chemical Laboratories; and Barbara Pennington, a registered nurse and former PPD researcher and trainer who now teaches and develops curriculum within UNCW’s clinical research program.

In a preceding presentation, UNCW economist William (Woody) Hall reported data indicating that $10 million in expenditures from CROs locally have an $18 million impact. To read about Hall's economic forecast for the region from Thursday's conference, click here.

Speaking about their companies, Bon, Orr and Sayed each reported steady growth, heightened revenues and increased opportunities to collaborate with other companies within the CRO sector in the region.

Increased networking and collaboration are due, in part, to the N.C. Coast Clinical Research Initiative, an effort begun in 2011 to improve visibility, cross-fertilization and growth of the sector locally.

Bon said that it has been helpful to have a better understanding of what companies exist in the area.

“The initiative has been critically important to me," he said. "We need to know the network. Instead of sending potential clients away when they need something we don’t have, we can refer them to other companies in the area, and keep them within this area as a result.”

Orr said that the CRO cluster, in general, needs more visibility and needs the community to understand better the many products and services involved in bringing a drug to market.

“There are many career tracks for someone in the industry,” she said. “If you want to move from one career to another, there are plenty of opportunities.”

All said UNCW was an important resource for talent -- for academic expertise as well as a source for new hires in a very competitive field. Bon and Orr, in particular, said they take on UNCW students as interns and that many interns become employees.

Sayed said he would like to work with the university more closely. His business, which has grown to employ 120 highly skilled people in its five-year history, is limited by the number of qualified candidates it can find who are ready to work, he said.

According to a recent report from the N.C. Coast Clinical Research Initiative, more than 70 companies, employing more than 2,225 people, are part of the clinical research and biotechnology industry cluster in southeastern North Carolina.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics has stated that the 2009 annual income of local clinical research employees averaged $85,119. The focus areas of the companies in the cluster vary widely. Of the 21 CROs operating locally, five are headquartered in Wilmington, the report stated. Many mid-size and smaller, entrepreneurial organizations here provide a range of services in very specific areas, such as biostatistics or medical writing.