ECU Pharma Conference illustrates growth of industry

The East Carolina University Spring Pharma Conference celebrated its fifth anniversary last week — and celebrated growth in the pharmaceutical industry at the same time.

Alex Bates, a sales representative for Carolina Components Group, and Lindsay Staten, quality manager for Carolina Components Group, set up equipment for a vendor display during the ECU Spring Pharma Conference. (Photos by Ken Buday)

About 200 people attended the two-day event in the Main Campus Student Center, far eclipsing the 68 people who attended ECU’s first pharma conference in 2019.

“This is a milestone year,” Dr. Jack Pender, director of pharmaceutical training and laboratory services in ECU’s Department of Chemistry, said in his opening remarks.

The conference’s growth mirrors an industry that has added 14,500 jobs with a $13.1 billion investment across the state since 2020, just one reason ECU is helping develop its workforce through a variety of programs.

“Growth of life sciences has gone crazy since 2020,” Mark Phillips, vice president of statewide operations and executive director of the eastern regional office of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, said during his presentation. “It continues to push forward.”

No one has to tell that to Alex Bates and Lindsay Staten, who both graduated from ECU and work for Carolina Components Group, a pharmaceutical manufacturing equipment company in Durham.

“We started the company back in February 2020, right after COVID, and we’ve been able to grow exponentially,” said Staten, a 2016 engineering graduate. “We’ve actually expanded to three different sites since we started the company, and we just keep growing. We started out with an eastern North Carolina footprint, but we’ve expanded across the U.S., into some parts of Canada, and now we’re in Europe. We’re growing very rapidly.”

Bates, a 2021 distribution and logistics graduate, said the company’s attendance at the conference as a vendor simply made sense.

“We have customers in eastern North Carolina, and we want to support biotech growth,” he said.

“And maybe learn a few things along the way,” Staten added.

Mark Phillips, vice president of statewide operations and executive director of the eastern regional office of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, speaks to Kimberly Lupo, CEO of Portrett Pharmaceuticals, at her vendor table.

That’s what drew Akin Adeniran to the conference.

“I wanted to be able to talk to some other people who work in the same sector I work in to get some experience and see how things are being done in different companies compared to where I work,” said Adeniran, a quality specialist for CMP Pharma in Farmville. “I wanted to talk to some more experienced people so we can share ideas and make things work better.”

He spent some time visiting Julianne Griffith, a technical support specialist for Flow Sciences, a safety containment systems company from Leland that was among a ballroom full of vendors.

“Containment is one of the most important things in a lab,” Griffith said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re doing something completely revolutionary if everyone in your lab is going to get sick because you weren’t doing it safely. It’s very important to work with containment solutions that keep everyone safe and protected.”

As a student at ECU, Cheyenne Bowman worked in a chemistry lab with Pender. Now she’s a research and development manufacturing scientist at Thermo Fisher in Greenville.

“I attended two years ago, and I like that they brought in more people on the manufacturing side, which is what we’re looking for,” said Bowman, who has bachelor’s (2014) and master’s (2017) degrees in chemistry from ECU.

She toured the vendor tables with Samantha Hartmann, a fellow research and development manufacturing scientist with Thermo Fisher.

“I really enjoyed getting to visit with all the vendors and networking, getting a chance to see what they have,” Hartmann said. “We want to see what we can learn to bring back to our team.”

Julianne Griffith, a technical support specialist with Flow Sciences, talks to Akin Adeniran, a quality specialist with CMP Pharma, during the ECU Spring Pharma Conference.

ECU’s Office of Continuing and Professional Education and the Eastern Region Pharma Center hosted the conference. It featured two days of information, topical discussions and networking. Contributors included regional subject matter experts, vendors, sponsors and invited speakers. Beyond the general program, 28 breakout sessions provided topics to engage attendees from all career stages.

Professionals from 55 pharmaceutical and life sciences companies and organizations from throughout North Carolina as well as some students attended the event.

In his opening remarks, Phillips looked to 1970 when Burroughs Wellcome first came to Greenville, setting the stage for eastern North Carolina and the state to become a national leader in the pharmaceutical industry.

“We didn’t rest on our laurels,” he said. “We continue to push forward to what’s next.”

An example of that is ECU’s pharma center, created in 2021 through the help of a $1.9 million grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation. With five community colleges and 15 pharmaceutical companies as partners, the center serves as a leader in workforce development for the growing industry, with labs and equipment in the Life Sciences and Biotechnology Building.

“If you haven’t been there, take a tour. It’s really a cool space,” Phillips told attendees.

Bobby Ansley, talent acquisition manager at Novo Nordisk, said that community is at the heart of the company, so serving as title sponsor of the conference just made sense.

“It’s such a cool event,” Ansley said. “At the end of the day, it’s like minds getting together, understanding the similar challenges our corporate counterparts are experiencing and having good discussions about how we can best serve the community.”

Dr. Jack Pender delivers his opening remarks to about 200 people attending the ECU Spring Pharma Conference.