WCU, A-B Tech, UNCA partner to seek biotech research center at Enka site

CULLOWHEE — Western Carolina University Chancellor John W. Bardo announced plans Wednesday, Nov. 8, to seek a biotechnology and genomics center at the former BASF plant in Enka, with three mountain educational institutions partnering with a major company in the burgeoning field of biotechnology to help Western North Carolina tap into opportunities of the 21st-century economy.

The proposed partnership, going to The University of North Carolina Board of Governors for consideration as part of the current budgeting process, would link WCU, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and the University of North Carolina-Asheville with the PE Corp., a company at the forefront of the biotechnology industry. Formerly known as Perkins-Elmer, PE Corp. is the parent company of Celera Genomics, the privately owned partner in the effort to decipher human genetic code.

“Several years ago, economic development studies of the Asheville-Hendersonville region suggested that information and technology could be important businesses in the region, but that infrastructure and workforce development would be necessary if there were to be significant advancement in these economic areas,” Bardo said in announcing the proposal. “Many economists argue that the 1990s was the decade of electronics, and that the 2000s will be the decade of biotechnology.”

Announcement of the proposed center was one of several initiatives discussed at a daylong conference at WCU focusing on new economic development strategies to help the mountain region meet the economic challenges of the 21st century. Nearly 500 business, government and education leaders, residents and students from Western North Carolina attended the conference, “Western North Carolina Regional 2000: Planning for the New Economy,” in the Ramsey Regional Activity Center.

If approved by the UNC Board of Governors and the legislature, the partnership would enable establishment of an inter-institutional education and research center in biotechnology and genomics at A-B Tech’s recently acquired property at Enka, with PE Corp. providing many of the analytical devices and equipment needed for the center’s laboratories.

The purpose of the center would be to:

* Train community college students in the operations of biotechnology laboratories and businesses.
* Support education and research by faculty and students in the sciences at both Western and UNCA in biotechnology and genomics, including expansion of WCU’s graduate programs in the sciences and development of applied graduate programs in technology.
* Promote development of biotechnology specializations in the technology program at Western, to include full articulation with the transfer curriculum of A-B Tech.
* Provide additional education and training for health-care professionals in WNC and for students in health-related disciplines at A-B Tech and WCU.
* Support applied research and training to enhance the development of biotechnology and genomics businesses in WNC.

Western Carolina graduate and former Asheville resident Tony White, chairman and chief executive officer of PE Corp., agreed that his company would become a business partner in developing the inter-institutional biotechnology center, if approved, Bardo said.

PE Corp. is a leading manufacturer of high-tech analytical instruments and life-science systems. The company joined forces with controversial molecular biologist J. Craig Venter in May 1998 to form Celera Genomics. Venter is credited with revolutionizing the biological sciences and accelerating the pace of genomic research.