ECU gets $1.9 million Golden LEAF grant to develop Eastern Region Pharma Center

East Carolina University has received a nearly $1.9 million grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation for the creation of a pharmaceutical manufacturing training center.

The Eastern Region Pharma Center (ERPC) is designed to teach students and current pharmaceutical employees advanced manufacturing techniques and address a need for pharmaceutical workers with four-year college degrees in an area known as the BioPharma Crescent in eastern North Carolina. Pitt, Johnston, Wilson, Nash and Edgecombe counties are home to a variety of pharmaceutical companies, including Thermo Fisher Scientific, Mayne Pharma, Novo Nordisk, Grifols, Pfizer and CMP Pharma.

Pitt, Johnston, Wilson, Nash and Edgecombe community colleges are also part of the five-year project.

Within ECU, the project will initially draw on faculty expertise from the departments of engineering, technology systems and chemistry — and later from the colleges of business and education.

Dr. Harry Ploehn, dean of the College of Engineering and Technology and the project’s leader, said the center brings ECU and regional assets together to benefit eastern North Carolina.

“With better coordination across the BioPharma Crescent counties, all of the partners — including industry, community colleges and ECU — will be more effective at recruiting students into lucrative, rewarding careers in the pharmaceutical industry, not to mention retaining our talent in the region,” he said. “This is truly a ‘grow local’ approach to provide the workforce our industry partners need to thrive here.” 

Ploehn said the pharmaceutical industry already employs thousands in the region, and the demand for employees will continue to grow. He cited a December announcement by Thermo Fisher in Greenville to expand and add 500 jobs as well as a 2020 N.C. Biotechnology Center workforce study projecting aggressive growth of the pharmaceutical industry’s workforce needs, especially for those with graduate and bachelor degrees.

The ERPC and its community partners not only will provide trained professionals to fill those jobs, but also provide continuing education to help current employees advance their careers, allowing those workers to continue to live in eastern North Carolina, thus helping the area’s economy, Ploehn said.

“The key will be reaching those students in place so they can gain advanced skills without leaving their jobs, families and communities,” he said.

Among the highlights of the project:

  • The center will create the Pharma Pathways Program in which ECU and community college staff will collaborate to help raise student awareness and provide academic programs, job training and career opportunities in the pharmaceutical industry. The program will be marketed throughout the region, including in military communities, and will provide career planning, scholarships and academic coaching from faculty, staff and industry representatives.
  • The center will build and equip the Manufacturing Capability and Cybersecurity Complex (MCCC) located in 4,500 square feet of lab space in ECU’s new Life Sciences and Biotechnology Building on Evans and 10th streets in Greenville on the Millennial Campus. The MCCC will be a hands-on, experiential education and training environment that will include two 1,200-square-foot teaching labs with new bioextraction and bioprocessing equipment, and a 1,900-square-foot high-bay lab housing a pilot-scale continuous manufacturing line.
  • The center will add three new ECU faculty members and two academic advisors who will collaborate with community college counterparts to increase teaching capacity and develop new courses, enabling the colleges and ECU to expand enrollment in biotechnology and bioprocess manufacturing programs. The programs also aim to introduce pharmaceutical manufacturing topics to students in other disciplines such as chemistry and business that industry partners plan to recruit.
  • The center will expand on the N.C. Pharmaceutical Services Network (PSN@ECU), funded by a $1.1 million Golden LEAF grant to ECU in 2015, offering pharmaceutical manufacturing short courses, employee training and opportunities in which industry partners can test new ideas without disrupting their own manufacturing lines.

Ploehn said many partners worked hard in securing the grant, including Mark Phillips, vice president for statewide operations and executive director of the eastern region for the N.C. Biotechnology Center, and ECU Interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson and Mike Van Scott, interim vice chancellor for Research, Economic Development and Engagement.

“Growing employment opportunities for the citizens of eastern North Carolina and improving the economy in the region are at the core of ECU’s mission,“ said Van Scott. “Pharmaceutical manufacturing is critical to the economy of our region and state. ECU works closely with private and public partners to align efforts in support of this sector. By working together, we can scale opportunities for our students and faculty, increase career options in the region and meet the needs of our industry partners for growth and expansion.”


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