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Knoxville Business News Tennessee Mountain Scenery Background
November 18, 2019 | Tom Ballard

New study underway to plot best path forward for the state’s life science sector

The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development has contracted with RTI International to examine the life science sector in the state and present a strategy for its growth by early next year.

Jennifer Ozawa, a Senior Economist with RTI, is conducting the study, and she was in Nashville last week meeting with some of the attendees at LSTCON, the annual conference of Life Science Tennessee. Ozawa also shared some preliminary observations during a general session at the event.

The study includes a data analysis component that is examining four distinct sectors: medical devices, drugs and pharma, logistics and distribution, and research and testing labs. Based on her examination, Ozawa said that the medical device area is the only one of the four sectors that grew in the state between 2010 and 2016 and is also the only one that is keeping pace with the overall industry growth on a national basis.

“A good way to look at Tennessee 30 years from now is to look at Memphis’ history in orthopedics,” she suggested. The West Tennessee city is home to companies in that sector like Smith & Nephew, Wright Medical, and Medtronic.

“Anchor companies drive the start-up ecosystem,” Ozawa said, underscoring the point by showing a chart of newer companies founded by alumni of these big corporations. She also noted that a third of the patents issued in Tennessee were in the medical device sector.

Next, Ozawa shifted east, talking about North Carolina which is widely recognized for its burgeoning life science sector.

“There was no pharma industry in North Carolina in 1960,” she reminded attendees. Today, it is ranked number three in the country in terms of manufacturing jobs in the pharmaceutical industry. The state is home to more than 700 bioscience companies and more than 2,000 service provider companies.

How did that happen? Ozawa said a major driver was a 1984 decision to create the North Carolina Biotech Center and provide $20 million in annual funding. As described on the organization’s webpage, its purpose is “transforming the life sciences and life in North Carolina.”

Instead of using its share of the tobacco settlement monies that went to states in 2003 to balance a state budget as Tennessee did, North Carolina used the one-time monies to invest in something called the Golden Leaf Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center (BTEC) at North Carolina State University. The Center is focused on developing skilled professionals for the biomanufacturing industry and creating the best-trained, most industry-focused workforce possible.

“Tennessee is an entrepreneurial state (with) many smart people,” Ozawa said, adding that a more intentional life sciences strategy is needed. “It’s about developing the ecosystem and, as you do so, there are going to be some successes and some failures.”

Many people are anxiously awaiting her final report.

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