Western, UNCA, Furman form Western Carolinas Biotechnology Consortium

ASHEVILLE – With a pledge from U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor to seek $13 million in federal support, leaders from Western Carolina University, the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and Furman University have formed a partnership aimed at boosting the emerging biotechnology industry in the western Carolinas.

Christened the Western Carolinas Biotechnology Consortium, it is the latest in a series of initiatives announced by Taylor to try to stimulate economic development in Western North Carolina by improving the region’s educational infrastructure and stemming the phenomenon known as “brain drain.”

“We cannot send our students to other parts of the United States and hope we’ll create technical industries here in Western North Carolina, because so many of our fine students go outside of the region for training and do not return. By having the training and research here, we’ll have the jobs here. That’s our primary goal,” Taylor said at a partnership signing ceremony Tuesday, Sept. 3, at UNCA. “Soon, opportunities in technology will be possible in Western North Carolina – not in distant California, not in Massachusetts or Washington, D.C., but here in Western North Carolina, with some of the best technology and some of the best training available in the United States.”

The projected $13 million in federal funding, to be sought in allocations over several years, will enable the three universities to jointly develop the high-tech resources, facilities and equipment needed to provide quality undergraduate and graduate training in several biotechnology fields, including genomics, proteomics and bioinformatics. Research conducted by faculty and students is expected to spin off start-up companies that will have a positive impact on the economy of WNC and Upstate South Carolina.

Western Chancellor John Bardo said the partnership would enable the region to build its capacity to participate in the new economy of the 21st century while avoiding duplication of effort during tight economic times.

“What this consortium is about is trying not to reproduce the wheel so that each university doesn’t have to go out and hire exactly the same people to do exactly the same work,” Bardo said. “That allows us to spread our resources further, it allows us to interact with a broader range of students, and it lets us bring together the great minds that we have on all of our campuses to get work done for the benefit of the people – and that includes core education, basic research, applied research and applied training.”

David Butcher, head of the department of chemistry at Western, gave some examples of biotechnology initiatives currently under way at WCU, including efforts to develop more-commercially viable stands of hardwood trees; the use of root structures of certain types of plants to help clean up hazardous waste; and the search for biotech solutions to protect the endangered Fraser fir trees of WNC’s highest mountains.

UNCA Chancellor Jim Mullen hailed Tuesday’s announcement as “a very exciting moment for this region, for all the western Carolinas.”

The heads of three universities -- (left to right) David Shi of Furman, John Bardo of Western Carolina, and Jim Mullen of UNCA -- sign agreements forming the Western Carolinas Biotechnology Consortium, while U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor looks on.

The heads of three universities — (left to right) David Shi of Furman, John Bardo of Western Carolina, and Jim Mullen of UNCA — sign agreements forming the Western Carolinas Biotechnology Consortium, while U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor looks on.

“Today we are talking about partnerships, about collaboration, about working together to enhance the quality of life not only for this generation, but for generations yet to come,” Mullen said. “We are stronger as individual institutions when we stand together. Today, we come together around this consortium in the area of emerging technologies that are going to make such a difference in this community, and we bring the great faculties of three fine institutions together in this effort.”

David Shi, president of Furman University, called the partnership between Furman (a private liberal arts university), UNCA (a public liberal arts university) and Western (a regional comprehensive university) “one of the most exciting and unique ventures in higher education.”

“I want to impress upon you how unique this partnership is,” Shi said. “Not only is it unique because it straddles state boundaries, but it brings together institutions of higher learning that are very different in terms of their structure, their heritage and their mission. Yet all of us have found ways to collaborate and to enrich our respective learning opportunities through this initiative.”

Through Taylor’s Education and Research Consortium of the Carolinas, Western also is partnering with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Clemson University in the Carolinas Micro-Optics Triangle. That effort focuses on the field of photonics, sometimes called “electronics at the speed of light.”