Executive Director of ACC’s Biotechnology Center of Excellence discusses technology job creation
Mebane resident Yonnie Butler, who serves as the executive director of Alamance Community College’s Biotechnology Center of Excellence, has been appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper to serve on the North Carolina Board of Science, Technology & Innovation.
“There are more than 5,000 biotech jobs in North Carolina open right now. In some ways, it feels like I’ve got a bag of money. The challenge is how we get more people to reach out and grab that bag of money and believe they can have a career. You will have great benefits; a majority of these companies will pay for your continuing education.”
– Yonnie Butler, Executive director, ACC biotechnology center of Excellence
Butler was hired in March 2017 as the first executive director for ACC’s Biotech Center of Excellence, which is currently under construction at the intersection of Jimmie Kerr Road and I-85/40 and targeted for completion later this year.
It may be that his work in the private sector – Butler started out as a chemist with what was then known as Roche Biomedical Laboratories, which later became LabCorp, before going on to work for Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park – eventually prepared him for his current role in higher education.
Butler is a true believer in the transformative power of education and, particularly, in the role he hopes that ACC and its biotech program could play in shaping Alamance County’s economy.
“There are more than 5,000 [biotech] jobs in North Carolina open right now,” Butler said Tuesday in an interview with The Alamance News.
“To my surprise, when I came here five years ago, [I discovered] many students with four-year degrees came to us to get the real-world training and experience in something they’re more passionate about,” Butler recalled Tuesday in an interview with The Alamance News. “In addition, we have [seasoned workers] who come into our program from areas like cosmetology, [the] food industry, construction – a whole variety of fields that are not science. In the food industry, you are following recipes; that’s critical. I don’t know that you can make the case [that skills in any field aren’t transferable]. Our graduates are reporting starting salaries at $45,000 to $65,000 – that’s just in two short years.
“A student in east Burlington can come here and get that two-year degree,” often at no cost, Butler said, referring to the recent creation of the Alamance Promise program. ACC last month announced the Alamance Promise scholarship program, which is being funded by an endowment through ACC’s Foundation that includes $14.5 million from 171 individual funds and a total of $19.5 million in financial assets.
“There are more than 5,000 biotech jobs in North Carolina open right now,” Butler said Tuesday. “In some ways, it feels like I’ve got a bag of money. The challenge is how we get more people to reach out and grab that bag of money and believe they can have a career. You will have great benefits; a majority of these companies will pay for your continuing education. You take Merck: they will pay you to go on with your degree. The largest plus for our biotech program is the more than 700-plus hours of hands-on training that you get; that’s more than four-year students get. We are blessed to have support from so many in the community. Between scholarships and Alamance Promise, it’s really a no-lose proposition.”
Butler has devoted much of his five years at ACC to building relationships with biotech companies to develop programs at ACC that meet their employment needs, based on numerous updates he has presented to ACC’s board of trustees.
Butler and his colleague, ACC grants officer Scott Doron, also have worked to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial support from companies such as LabCorp, as well as from the county, individuals, companies, and the U.S. Department of Commerce and Economic Development Administration. “The biggest part of that was secured by [N.C.] senator Amy Scott Galey,” Butler said Tuesday, referring to a special $3.6 million state appropriation that will be used to purchase advanced equipment for ACC’s Biotech Center of Excellence.
Meanwhile, in 2018, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center awarded a $100,000 grant, to be administered by the city of Burlington, to help ACC prepare students for new jobs at LabCorp.
The following year, LabCorp announced a $1 million gift to ACC, designated for lab equipment and supplies for the Biotechnology, Medical Laboratory Technology, Histotechnology, and Agricultural Biotechnology programs, the latter of which ACC launched in 2019 to prepare students to work for global biotech giants such as Syngenta, Eurofins Scientific, and BASF, along with startup companies that have planted roots in Alamance County.
ACC most recently launched an 8-week crash course called BioWork to prepare students for entry-level biomanufacturing jobs in the pharmaceutical industry. “This was custom-created for that,” Butler explained. The majority of students who complete the crash-course will have their pick of jobs with companies such as Merck, Pfizer, Carolina Biological, Biogen, and Indulor, he said. “One of our graduates has just been named vice president of manufacturing, with more than 3,000 people reporting to him, for a pharmaceutical company in China; we have graduates who go on to work in South Korea, Europe,” Butler elaborated.
“How can we encourage startup companies or entrepreneurs to put down roots here?” – Yonnie Butler
In addition to pharmaceutical giants such as Merck and Pfizer, ACC has collaborated with more than 100 local and regional employers to help students land jobs, Butler said. One example he pointed to is Your Local Greens in Burlington, a startup company that converted a former textile building into an indoor hydroponic vertical farm – part of an “urban” agricultural wave aimed at mitigating the steady loss of traditional farming operations –that sells lettuce to Harris-Teeter. Examples of startups such as Your Local Greens illustrate for other would-be entrepreneurs “what you can do without having to spend tens of thousands [of dollars],” Butler said.
Jobs in biotech are ‘recession-proof’
Given the continuing demand for workers, jobs in the biotechnology sector are “absolutely” recession-proof, Butler told the newspaper this week.
“It’s not like a textile job, where if a company goes out of business, you’re asking yourself, ‘what do I do,’” Butler explained. “You’ve always got a job. There are 700 biotech companies in the state. The majority of those are in RTP, but if one shuts down, you’ve got the skills to go to another close by. Because of the economy we’re in right now, employees, if they’re not getting the raise or promotion they want, they’re hopping next door and getting what they want.”
Butler acknowledges that it’s long been his dream to see more of that development shift westward from RTP.
“Being a native, I want to see us have a combination of 100-person, 200-person companies set up here,” he said. “I also want to see us have those small startups. [In] Alamance County, if you think about biotechnology, you think about Carolina Biological and LabCorp. Those are global companies, and they set down roots here.”
Rising costs of development in RTP and the Triangle region create an opportunity for Alamance County. “We want to bring the high-tech jobs here, good-paying jobs that are paying $60,000 to $80,000 a year” that can capitalize on scientific and medical research taking place at UNC, Duke, N.C. State, and Wake Forest universities, Butler said. Researchers who hope to patent a potentially life-saving drug or diagnostic application are faced with the challenge of finding affordable lab space in the Triangle, he explained. “That paints a challenge for us: how can we encourage startup companies or entrepreneurs to put down roots here?”
To address that need, ACC’s Biotechnology Center of Excellence will include an “incubator” space, Butler said, “where we can work with and hopefully recruit a couple of high-tech startup companies that are coming out of our research universities.”
That vision ties back into the hands-on training that students in ACC’s biotech program receive, Butler noted in the interview. As part of a capstone course in the program, ACC brings in companies that need help coming up with a solution to a real-world program.
Butler recalled how an Israeli medical textile manufacturer, Avgol, had reached out to him for help a couple of years ago. “They had heard about our program,” he said. Working on an “old lab bench,” ACC’s students helped the company develop, test, and launch a new medical textile product. “Think about that: a global company would come to us and our students would help them create a new product [for] the global market,” Butler remarked.
‘It’s our beacon’
ACC officials envisioned the forthcoming Center of Excellence as a regional hub for innovative, technology-based workforce development in biotechnology. The group, which met throughout 2015 and 2016, looked at several programmatic focuses for a future Center of Excellence, such as information technology and mechatronics, before landing on biotechnology, which Butler attributed to the fact that, in 1985, ACC established the first two-year biotechnology program in the country.
Construction of the Biotechnology Center of Excellence is being funded by the $39.6 million bond package that voters approved for ACC in November 2018. Each of the three floors will have about 11,000 square feet. The first floor will have offices, classrooms, and a multipurpose space; the second floor will have labs and classrooms; while the third floor has nothing on it yet, Butler said this week.
“[ACC president Dr. Algie Gatewood] had the great idea of leaving that available for what new companies might need; Dr. Gatewood came up with the term, ‘the floor of the future,’” Butler told the newspaper Tuesday.
“Dr. Gatewood has said, ‘it’s our front door, our beacon,’” Butler said of ACC’s Biotech Center of Excellence. “When I talk to folks outside of the county, [they really only know] Tanger on the east side and Red Oak Brewery on the west side, so this is yet another beacon for people to really know where Alamance County is. This is the only visible location for the college; you really can’t see any of our other buildings [from the interstate].”
A Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) that was conducted for the project several years ago estimated that 110,000 vehicles will pass by the Center of Excellence every day, which Butler said “makes this one of the most visible biotech facilities in the Southeast.”
He succeeds Gatewood on the state board of Science, Technology & Innovation, which is part of the state Department of Commerce. The 25-member board (which includes the governor and state Secretary of Commerce) meets monthly to come up with ways to promote scientific and technology-based economic development throughout the state, according to a description from the Department of Commerce. Terms are four years.