A Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity: OKC’s Biomanufacturing Workforce Training Center

 A Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity:
OKC’s Biomanufacturing Workforce Training Center

A biomanufacturing workforce training center (BWTC) program is coming to the Oklahoma City Innovation District.

And while the program is tied to an industry that may seem inaccessible to the average Oklahoman, and while it is a mouthful to say (clocking in at 13 syllables), it is a program that addresses the myth of “inaccessibility,” and it is one that all Oklahomans should be aware of. The program, one of the only programs if its kind in the U.S., is one that will enable the formation of inclusive, non-degreed careers in the OKC Innovation District, and as Stephanie Wickham, the Senior Director of Research & Development at Cytovance Biologics, explained, the program will impact the entirety of the state with life-changing opportunities for families that have not existed in Oklahoma before.

“The biomanufacturing workforce training center program provides Oklahomans with more opportunities for employment in the state,” Wickham said. “I was born here, but I was not able to grow up here because my dad was oil & gas, and with the bust of the ‘80s, my parents made the difficult decision to uproot our family to follow the work. This workforce training center will provide another option for our states’ families to not follow the work to another state, but rather to follow the work here – to stay where their roots are.”

The BWTC program will meet the growing demand for skilled labor in the Oklahoma Biotech Innovation Cluster (OBIC), an initiative spearheaded by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, alongside primary coalition partners including the OKC Innovation District and the University of Oklahoma, along with industry leadership from Echo Investment Capital and support from more than 40 partners across academia, tribal nations, government, industry, community and investors. Dallas Browning, a Partner over Research & Investments with Echo, adds to Wickham’s response as he notes how the BWTC program will not only help retain state talent, but also how it will attract new talent.

“This training center positions OKC as one of the few hubs for biomanufacturing talent in the U.S., on top of the state’s benefits of cost, location and infrastructural advantages,” Browning said. “It will attract business expansions and new direct investment in biomanufacturing, further growing the industry in Oklahoma, and it will fuel the continued development of existing companies in the area, like Wheeler Bio and Cytovance, creating hundreds of new no-degree-needed jobs that pay at or above the area’s median income; it creates a pathway to in-demand, high-growth and competitive-wage jobs that, even if you are not interested in biomanufacturing, will contribute to economic development by creating more wealth that fuels new business.”

The potential economic development Browning speaks of is just one piece to the puzzle that could make Oklahoma City a national name synonymous with biomanufacturing, and according to Jesse McCool, Co-Founder & CEO of Wheeler Bio, the recent shifts in the biomanufacturing industry are also key contributors to positioning the city and the state at the forefront of the bio industry in the U.S.

“An industry shift toward entrepreneurial discovery and development is underway in biomanufacturing, with emergent biopharma companies now responsible for 90 percent of next-gen product discovery and development,” McCool said. “OKC’s biomanufacturing workforce training center has the chance to fill a gap in the region’s biomanufacturing process by providing a missing piece to the area’s puzzle; Full spectrum integration across the product development lifecycle—uniting regional research, manufacturing, clinical trials, and more—could offer a frictionless and cost-effective environment for global drug developers. This gives a unique advantage to Middle American ecosystems to compete against incumbent coastal leaders, and due to Oklahoma City’s natural advantages (cost, location, existing infrastructure and business favorability), the city is well positioned to meet the above needs, as it seeks to scale its workforce with the BWTC.”

Wickham compounds on this industry shift note from McCool and adds to the imperative nature of training Oklahoma’s workforce in biomanufacturing and how that training will impact the research already being done by her team at Cytovance.

“The biomanufacturing workforce training center will provide researchers with technicians that are already trained in the basic lab skills needed to hit the ground running,” Wickham said. “With that, the research labs won’t have to do as much on-the-job-training and will be able to generate data sooner, which leads to launching new offerings sooner, which attracts more industry. The sooner our researchers can get pivotal data for grant submissions, the sooner we can been seen as a hub for science and innovation.”

But OKC truly being seen as a hub for science and innovation, along with the hype around the BWTC, is not simply Oklahoma bias; rather, the program is also being championed from some of the state’s neighbors. Jenny Ligon, the Associate Director of the National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing (NCTM), located in College Station, Texas, spoke to the program’s potential impact across the entire region. NCTM has a proven track record serving Texas’ growing biopharmaceutical industry through workforce development and training.

“There are tremendous opportunities for Oklahoma within the biotech industry,” Ligon said. Oklahoma and Texas have similar, historical primary industries in oil & gas, and it’s imperative for the success of our states to diversify the industries we develop and nourish, of which biomanufacturing is the wave of the future. Oklahoma City’s BWTC will support a skilled and trained workforce, which is imperative to recruit and retain biopharma companies as we have seen in College Station.

“Since the NCTM opened 10 years ago, it has trained more than 2,200 people for pharmaceutical companies all over the region. When local biomanufacturer Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies Texas (FDBT) came to the NCTM at the onset of COVID and expressed that they needed more than 300 new hires, we had a customized onboarding program prepared in less than three weeks, and since August 2020, we have trained more than 400 FDBT new hires and tenured employees.”

However, even with these numbers, Ligon noted that it’s impossible for any single biomanufacturing organization to fulfill all the domestic biotech workforce needs the U.S. currently has, which sparks a need for collaboration between College Station’s NCTM and OKC’s BWTC.

“The biomanufacturing industry is growing more rapidly than can be supported by a skilled and trained workforce,” Ligon said. “Couple this with the fact that the manufacturing technologies comprising this industry are also ever-changing, and it’s no wonder our workforce can’t keep up. It’s important for organizations such as the NCTM and OKC’s BWTC to collaborate and share best practices, as no one organization can fulfill our domestic biotech workforce needs.”

With Oklahoma City looking to continue its step into the national biotech spotlight, there is no time like the present for the city to shine brightly on a stage that is set for a new star. On September 12, 2022, President Biden made an executive order to advance bringing biotechnology and biomanufacturing innovation onshore in America, and according to Wickham, Oklahoma City is seeking to be that shining star.

“I think Oklahoma City’s BWTC will play a pivotal role in the President’s recent executive order, and Oklahoma is strategically located at the center of the U.S. to be able to service both of the country’s coasts equally, while maintaining a low operating cost,” Wickham said. “Having a workforce ready to plug into the industry will be attractive to companies looking to build here.”

Browning, from Echo, also notes the importance of this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

“As the world increasingly splits in the twilight of the globalization paradigm, the U.S. needs to ensure that it isn’t always dependent on far-away nations,” Browning said. “The BWTC will strengthen OKC’s capacity for biomanufacturing, enabling one more domestic hub that strategically lessens American firms’ dependence on overseas providers.

“Biopharmaceutical innovation in our country delivers more new drugs than the rest of the world combined, with around 60 percent of all new medicines being innovated in the U.S., and having more robust access to these services stateside, like at the BWTC or the NCTM, mitigates risk and allows companies to move quicker and more cost effectively, bringing the service chain closer to where the innovation is happening.”

The Biomanufacturing Workforce Training Center is one of six core investment projects set to expand the region’s biotechnology industry, bolstering domestic resiliency within the biopharmaceutical supply chain, and making the cluster more globally competitive. The additional five core investment projects, most of which are centered in the heart of the OKC Innovation District are:

1. OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center for Therapeutics – Translational Research Labs: development of 10 translational research labs dedicated to drug discovery within the OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center.
2. Oklahoma Biotech Startup Program – supportive programming to build a vibrant regional biotech startup pipeline led by the University of Oklahoma.
3. The University of Oklahoma Biotech Core Facility – a facility with state-of-the-art high-throughput, advanced bioprocessing equipment and services for OU instructors and researchers, local nonprofits and private companies.
4. OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center Early Phase Clinical Trial Network – an initiative to double the size of the existing clinical trial program at OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center and to commensurate with the demand for trials.
5. Oklahoma Bioscience Cluster Initiative – an initiative to lead regular meetings of industry leadership, conduct needs assessments, encourage regional connectivity, and spur policy advocacy.

Special thanks to Dallas Browning, Partner of Research & Investments at Echo Investment Capital, Jenny Ligon, Associate Director of the National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing, Jesse McCool, Co-Founder & CEO of Wheeler Bio, and Stephanie Wickham, a Senior Director of Research & Development at Cytovance, for their help with this article.

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