Could North Carolina’s Next Wave of Innovation Come From the Sea?

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

Diabetics may someday be able to ditch daily needle sticks and opt instead for a less frequent injection of tiny insulin-bearing particles to manage their blood sugar. Key to this experimental drug delivery method is the source material: shrimp shells and seaweed.

This nanoparticle technology, developed in labs at the joint biomedical engineering program at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, uses material from shrimp shells and seaweed to form a tiny mesh network that holds the nanoparticles until they’re needed. Zhen Gu, the biomedical engineering professor leading the research, says the materials work well because they are biocompatible with the human body. Tests of the drug delivery technology in animals have yielded promising results, so far.

The next wave of North Carolina innovation could come from its 301 miles of coastline. Long a source of food, the ocean is now being tapped by researchers and companies for applications ranging from pharmaceuticals to fuel. Development of this “blue economy” in the state and around the world was the focus last week at the BioMarine International Business Convention. Now in its sixth year, this year’s conference in Wilmington, NC, was the first time the gathering was held in the United States.

The BioMarine conference brings together various players in a marine bio industry that conference organizers say generates $172 billion in global revenue annually. The composition of that market is changing. Fuels have fallen out of favor as a marine bio target, due largely to cost. Entrepreneur Bruce Dannenberg hammered on that point to me last year when I wrote about his cleantech startup, Phytonix. The Asheville, NC, company engineered cyanobacteria, a kind of photosynthetic bacteria found on land and in oceans, to produce butanol. Dannenberg said Phytonix would pursue chemical applications rather than fuel uses because chemicals are a higher value market.

Pharmaceuticals and food have emerged as drivers for marine bio-research. Drug companies are searching for new compounds that can be developed into drugs to replenish their depleted pipelines. Meanwhile, food companies are turning to the oceans for new aquaculture solutions to help feed a growing global population. North Carolina can claim a beachhead in the blue economy because it is already home to established companies in both agriculture and pharmaceuticals, said John Hardin, executive director of the Office of Science, Technology, and Innovation at the state’s Department of Commerce.

North Carolina’s marine bio industry is still nascent compared to some other coastal states. California’s representation at BioMarine included San Diego-based Sapphire Energy, and Stellar Biotechnologies (OTC: SBOTD), located in Port Hueneme, CA. Both companies already have commercialized products; Sapphire sells algae-based fuels and is expanding into nutraceuticals and aquaculture. Stellar provides to drug companies a protein derived from a rare aquatic snail that is a key pharmaceutical ingredient in immunotherapies. North Carolina’s bio-marine footprint in the state is small. Of the more than 600 biotech life science companies in the state counted by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, just eight are categorized as aquaculture/marine. The NC State/UNC drug delivery research using material from shrimp shells and seaweed is not yet a company.

In order for North Carolina to become a marine bio hub, economic developers may need to widen their scope beyond the research developed within state borders. Many of the life science companies now based in Research Triangle Park were recruited to relocate there by the Biotech Center. The state-funded organization offers a mix of grant and loan programs intended to help early-stage companies reach the point where they can raise larger equity investments. The center says it has been involved in the recruitment or expansion of 36 life science companies from 2008 through 2014, but it has no breakdown for marine bio companies.

Hardin believes that the same North Carolina economic development infrastructure that brought agbio and pharma companies to RTP can also bring marine industry companies to the state. Few states have agencies comparable to the Biotech Center, which could help North Carolina stand out, he said during a panel discussion about international cooperation.

North Carolina already has a workforce ready for marine bio jobs. Wilmington’s coastal location has fostered strong marine science programs from high school through post-doctoral research, said Michelle Saboun, director of biotechnology/marine biotechnology at Brunswick Community College, speaking during a marine biotechnology panel. But she added that the region does not yet have the critical mass of companies to hire graduates.

“The problem I see is a massive brain drain,” Saboun said. “We don’t have a local [marine bio] industry. It’s just starting.”

Photo of beach on North Carolina’s Outer Banks courtesy of Flickr user Karen Blaha under a Creative Commons license.