An effort to strengthen and expand Wilmington’s clinical research industry is making progress and is ahead of schedule, officials said Tuesday.
Under the umbrella of the N.C. Coast Clinical Research Initiative, a number of players are working to create a more cohesive CRO community and forge relationships among those businesses, University of North Carolina Wilmington and community partners. A central piece of the initiative is the expansion of an area workforce that can support growth in the CRO sector, according to Randall Johnson, executive director of the southeastern North Carolina office of the N.C. Biotechnology Center, one of the community partners.
Last September, UNCW received a $390,000 grant from the Duke Energy Foundation to develop such a workforce development program, with a significant investment from UNCW itself.
The grant required a cost share from the university, Kathy Browder, senior associate dean of UNCW's College of Health and Human Services (CHHS) said Tuesday.
The program will focus on providing enhancement opportunities to existing employees in the CRO sector as well as attracting, educating and preparing the next generation of talent to the industry. Upgrades to the university’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship will make that space a convenient and productive place for industry, academic and community partners to meet and collaborate, Johnson said.
Ahead of an initiative leadership meeting later this month, Johnson discussed progress thus far on designing and implementing the workforce development program, which he said was ahead of the schedule UNCW originally submitted to the Duke Energy Foundation.
“We’ve been very aggressive in setting up the advisory council and [the council’s] action teams,” he said.
The advisory council is composed of CRO-related business leaders, Johnson, and representatives of CHHS and the mathematics and statistics department. Each of the council’s action teams is responsible for one aspect of the program, which involves:
- developing continuing education opportunities for current workers in biostatistics, statistical programming and clinical operations
- ensuring continuous improvement of current degree programs for undergraduates, with coursework and field work more directly related to job skills, as industry needs evolve
- providing advanced applied learning through a new fellowship program available to top students. An internship program related to the CRO industry already exists at UNCW.
- creating a collaborative workspace at the CIE to build connections between the industry and academia.
“[UNCW] chancellor [Jose] Sartarelli has been very supportive, and [CHHS dean] Charlie Hardy is extremely supportive as well. We have UNCW support at all levels,” Johnson said. “A portion of the initiative is focused on clinical, but it’s also focused on the more math-specific part of the industry that’s so important. We need the clinical side as well as statistical side. The math department has been key to our work."
Browder said that some of the continuing education offerings, and possibly a pilot of the industry fellowship, should be up and running by the start of fall semester.
UNCW is eager to do anything it can, as an institution of higher education, to better position its students for success in the workforce, she added. This public-private partnership was such an opportunity.
"A public-private partnerships is not a new concept but it's something we have not done as much as we might," she said. "And this [CRO] industry really serves the region. It will become a niche area for us, to serve students better, position them better, and to serve the workforce [needs]."
Another component of the N.C. Coast Clinical Research Initiative is to update the Southeastern N.C. Clinical Research Industry Report, which contains an inventory of CRO firms operating in the area, along with the businesses that provide support services for them.
Although that update is not yet complete, Johnson said that there are currently 30 CROs that have a Wilmington area presence and about 40 support companies. Such companies range from medical writing and patient recruiting firms to CRO-specific software, data management and even human resources companies, he explained.
“There are more companies starting here or coming here,” Johnson said, adding that these businesses are looking to UNCW and the community in general to find the talent they need to grow.