NC Biotech: A Crown Jewel for CALS Students

Aerial view of the biotech center

The NC Biotechnology Center is in Research Triangle Park, not far from NC State.

This is a guest post by Shea Woodbury, a summer intern with the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service and student in NC State’s animal science program.

This summer, I had the pleasure of visiting a wonderful, yet underutilized, student resource: The NC Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park.

To me, the crown jewel for agriculture and life science majors is the Agriculture Sector Development unit. The ASD’s job is to strengthen and grow the economy of North Carolina’s agriculture industry.

I interviewed two members of ASD, Michelle VonCannon and Scott Johnson, to learn about the importance of ASD to our state, to NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and to its undergraduate and graduate students.

Introducing Johnson and VonCannon

One reason NCBiotech stood out to me is that everyone who works there seems to be dedicated to their job, with strong technical skill sets and a commitment to the state and community. ASD Vice President Scott Johnson was looking for more opportunities focused on North Carolina when he joined NCBiotech.

“I have been here (in North Carolina) for 30 years,” Johnson said. “I took the job because the activity is varied and is on the cutting-edge of technology, and also because it deals with historical businesses.  So, we’re making those connections and introducing technology that sustains the industry.”

Similarly, Michelle VonCannon, the manager for ASD’s marketing, communication, and program and event development since 2011, joined the team because she thought she could really sell the state of North Carolina. “I’m from North Carolina, born and raised. I really can buy into what I’m selling here, which is North Carolina. I’m also able to bring my skills and talents to the table to market the state and events,” she said.

The teamwork among Johnson, VonCannon and all the faculty of NCBiotech and their dedication to helping people make the organization critical to the economic development scene in North Carolina.

NCBiotech Grows Businesses

NCBiotech wants to bring new companies to North Carolina, get the companies that are already here off the ground and on their feet and expand established businesses.

One of the biggest things that companies visiting North Carolina appreciate is the workforce. Medicago, for instance, which uses tobacco to manufacture and reproduce vaccines, specifically moved here to fulfill their need for specially-trained people.

The Biotech Center works with the companies that come here to develop and train skill sets and then move qualified individuals into open positions. That can include students, too.

“The Biotech Center works with the companies that come here to develop and train skill sets, and then move qualified individuals into open positions. That can include students, too,” VonCannon told me, since students are tomorrow’s professionals.

One of the benefits NCBiotech has as a separate organization is that they can tap into all of the assets and opportunities within the state to grow the business and the agricultural communities. Along with assisting universities, the ASD unit specifically grows the agriculture community. Their portfolio of loans helps entrepreneurs manage the high-risk areas of their businesses, such as securing deal with strict regulations.

“We help those targeted areas in the business lifecycle to accelerate commercialization,” Johnson explained. “We have a good record of getting paid back, too.”

NCBiotech and NC State CALS: Longstanding Partners

The relationship between NC State CALS and ASD runs deep. “CALS has been with us from the beginning and is one of the founding members of the advisory council. So one of the things we try to do is get them connected,” VonCannon told us.

When NCBiotech wants to understand the needs of the marketplace, they look at where the innovation is happening — and that’s mostly within the state’s universities. Then the center makes introductions and establishes connections between the universities and companies working in the area.

“We have tools to connect them, such as grants for [university] research, that de-risk the commercial opportunities and make innovations more appealing as commercial products,” Johnson said. The grants are also beneficial in getting universities across the state to come together and coordinate research to benefit the agricultural community, including our farmers.

The best things for an undergrad to do is to monitor the website. Take a look at the various events and see what they’re about.

NCBiotech offers several unique ways for NC State CALS undergraduate and graduate students to get involved. Johnson said, “The best things for an undergrad to do is to monitor the website. Take a look at the various events and see what they’re about and if they are something a student should be interested in.”

Events such as the Summer Social are more for general interest, while some of the other forums can be focused on specific technical opportunities, better for a graduate student or postdoc.

“At forums, there are a wide variety of topics, companies and speakers,” VonCannon said. “Students can connect with industry professionals to explore opportunities such as internships. The biotech center can also teach students how to network.”

That’s important because most big companies tend to hire people who have had an internship before. Currently, the center is also working to have student ambassadors participate and work within the program. This past April, for example, NCBiotech had the crop, animal and food showcase, where students came in to assist. There is also an internship opportunity at NCBiotech in the works.

A Resource for CALS Students

Geoff Bock, a former student who used NCBiotech resources while working on his master’s of microbial biotechnology [], describes the center as “a complementary resource to get more information about different sectors and career opportunities.” When he first moved to North Carolina as a student, Bock was unfamiliar with the area and the opportunities available to him. NCBiotech helped connect him to the state and its different industries.

“At NCBiotech, there is whole number of series that help make connections in industry and a flavor of what direction you want to go with career and internship and with your degree,” Bock said. In addition, Bock described the environment of the center as very welcoming to students and those new to the professional world.

Many networking events outside of those put on by the university are not designed for students, but NCBiotech “helps reinforce a supportive academic environment within the ecosystem at their events,” Bock said.

From Internships to Industry Information — and More

From how it connects industry to North Carolina to how it brings students and other young professionals to new opportunities, NCBiotech is an undeniably crucial resource. I recommend that anyone looking to get involved in research, internships or industry take a look at their events and everything else the center has to offer. With such a dedicated staff and former student success stories, there is nothing to lose by checking it out.

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