By Frank Vinluan, Xconomy
North Carolina Innovation, From Barcodes to Berries
If you’ve made a retail purchase recently, chances are good you used technology developed in Research Triangle Park without even realizing it.
The modern day barcode has its origins in the 1970s research of IBM scientists Joseph Woodland and George Laurer. Their work in IBM’s RTP labs was accompanied by the scanning technology to read Universal Product Codes. This technology was so transformative for retail that it found widespread adoption. These days, no one even gives the technology that facilitates their shopping transactions a second thought.
Silicon Valley and Boston always top the lists and rankings of technology and life sciences hubs. Like barcodes, Research Triangle Park often remains a distant thought. But there’s a lot happening in North Carolina that the rest of the country doesn’t know about. There’s more happening here than drug research and new cloud-based software. And it’s not just in the Park.
When I first started covering technology and biotechnology in North Carolina, an N.C. State University professor I met during a startup event reminded me that as big an imprint technology and biotechnology have made on North Carolina’s economy, agriculture remains the state’s biggest business. Tobacco still reigns as the state’s top cash crop. North Carolina is also the nation’s leading producer of sweet potatoes. Yet these old standby crops are ripe for innovation. Vaccine developer Medicago operates a manufacturing plant in RTP that can manufacture vaccines from tobacco leaves, a process that is faster and less expensive compared to traditional vaccine production methods. Researchers at N.C. State are studying how to use industrial sweet potatoes—full of starch and not the kind that you’d serve at Thanksgiving dinner—as a biofuel feedstock.
North Carolina is the U.S. home to several global agricultural technology companies. Bayer CropScience, BASF Plant Science, and Syngenta all maintain key operations around the Park and across the state. Bayer CropScience has made a concerted effort to expand in this region; the company recently committed to spend nearly $30 million to build a new state-of-the-art greenhouse at its RTP site. This expansion follows construction on bee research centers in RTP as well as another site south of Raleigh.
North Carolina’s technology innovation is not limited to the Research Triangle. The North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, once a busy textiles town north of Charlotte, is an example of North Carolina’s transition from the old economy to a new one. What was once the birthplace of new towels and bedding is now the site of research on a broad sample of North Carolina crops.
The Research Campus is the realized vision of David Murdock, chairman and CEO of Dole Foods. Dole is a California company but Murdock calls North Carolina home. Murdock, 91, is a firm believer that nutrition holds the key to his own longevity and health. He founded the campus in 2008, aiming to make it a center of food research by emulating the public-private partnership model that made RTP a hub of biotech and tech innovation. The campus currently houses industry operations from Dole and General Mills, as well as labs for university research partners from several North Carolina universities. At some pharma companies, genetic scientists study the human genome to find the causes of diseases and to develop targeted therapies to treat them. At the Research Campus, plant scientists study the blueberry genome to find specific compounds in the berry that have an effect on health and disease.
In Winston-Salem, Anthony Atala directs the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Atala envisions a day when organs can be grown in labs to alleviate the shortage of donor organs. He developed a way to grow tissue in the lab from a patient’s own cells. This technology spun out of the Institute as regenerative medicine firm Tengion. The company has since translated the technology from Atala, a urologist, into a way to help bladder cancer patients who have had their bladder removed. If the technology succeeds in clinical trials, these patients would have a better way to urinate. The company is also pursuing a second clinical program to treat patients whose advanced chronic kidney disease requires dialysis or worse, a transplant.
I have covered business, technology, and life sciences in North Carolina for seven years—long enough to see software entrepreneurs grow their startups into mature companies, but still short of the average time needed to take a new drug from discovery through regulatory approval. When I talk to people in different parts of the country, the first thing they ask about North Carolina is basketball. The second is barbeque. Few ask about biotechnology. No one says anything about barcodes. That’s too bad. While I’m sure that IBMers are quite proud to have changed the consumer shopping experience, and it’s a great North Carolina innovation story, a lot has happened here since the barcode. I look forward to telling Xconomy readers all about it.
Frank Vinluan is a contributing editor at Xconomy, based in Research Triangle Park.