Barker and Canfield chart growth of bioscience industry in Alabama

Barker and Canfield chart growth of bioscience industry in Alabama
EDPA CEO Greg Barker, upper left, and Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield are focused on growing the biotech industry in Alabama. (file)

Economic development leaders Greg Barker and Greg Canfield on Oct. 7 discussed the state’s growth opportunities and trends in the bioscience industry during the 2020 BIO Alabama virtual conference.

Both men have worked several years to propel Alabama to success in the bioscience arena. Thanks to the state’s careful planning and strategic emphasis on this growing sector, Alabama is home to 1,092 companies and entities whose focus is on biosciences, employing about 12,000 people.

Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, pointed out that the state in January 2012 began targeting the biosciences industry. The state created a $4 million innovation fund, targeted biosciences, engaged with the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama’s Launchpad program and joined efforts with Alabama’s seven research universities.

“We’re on the verge of being an overnight success after decades of hard work,” said Barker, president of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama.

Greg Barker (file)

As a longtime supporter of the biosciences industry in the state, Barker recalled working with the Medical Economic Development Alliance (MEDAL) organization in the mid-1990s. Economic developers and community leaders sought to make a difference in the industry.

“I’m encouraged by where we’ve been, I’m encouraged by where we are,” Barker said. “The governor’s office has embraced life science and innovation and commercialization. … I have really high hopes for really what seems to be the most energized BIO Alabama that I’ve ever seen in my professional life.”

Barker sees the future potential of biotechnology and great opportunities for agricultural technology throughout Alabama. The demand for skilled workers has skyrocketed, leading to the creation of the Alabama STEM Council in September to improve science, technology, engineering and math education to ready students for careers and workforce opportunities.

“All of this is coming together at the same time,” noted Canfield, who worked in the private sector and with a Fortune 500 company before serving in the Alabama House of Representatives for nearly five years. “Infrastructure is important because it creates the ability to grow the bioscience sector.”

Greg Canfield

He said Alabama must have the right tools to help industries thrive, as well as a pool of funds to grow early-stage companies and keep them anchored within the state. Finding upfront capital, impact investment funds and funding matches through small business innovation research (SBIR) will be key to the success of emerging bioscience companies.

Certain infrastructure must be in place to prepare for the economic development growth of these companies, Canfield said. Having and attracting people with the right skills and training – human infrastructure – depends on the state properly preparing its workers. Existing companies desire physical infrastructure, such as lab space and fast data transfer through fiber and broadband strategies.

Canfield said it’s been rewarding to see the growth of the bioscience sector. An incentive plan through the state, the Alabama Critical Supply Chain, Rural Renewal Minority and Women Business Opportunity Act, will help continue the growth of bioscience companies.

He said organizations such as EDPA are great representatives of the private sector, overall engagement and economic development for the state. Careful planning and strategy by the state’s economic developers ushered big industry into Alabama.

Before 1997, Canfield noted, Alabama didn’t produce a single auto. Now, the state has five original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) – Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota. A little more than 20 years later, Alabama is the nation’s fifth-largest vehicle producer.

Canfield and Barker expect that lessons learned from growing the auto industry will translate into success for the bioscience industry. Though automotive OEMS are competitors, they function as one voice, working to shape policy and partner with government to create real opportunity. Canfield believes that BIO Alabama should be a focal point to represent and engage the private sector.

“We can be enablers and facilitators, but our best role is to capture and create the type of environment that stimulates private sector involvement, engagement and policy-making,” Canfield said.

Barker said the aim is to help the biosciences industry continue to grow and eventually flourish in Alabama.

“I think we can take what we’ve done in other industries and do the very same thing in biosciences,” he said. “We are a world leader in automotive, in aerospace, in missile defense, and now it’s time for us to put forth the same energy, the same focus and the same strategy in the arena of biosciences. … Bio Alabama and its members, and the entire sector of biosciences, is going to be a critical part of how we view the future.”

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