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Greenville Business Magazine

Life Sciences Sector Poised for Growth, Success in Upstate

Oct 13, 2021 12:30PM ● By Erin Ford

When describing South Carolina’s life sciences industry of today, words like “surging” and “booming” are often mentioned.

Life sciences is diverse, with seven sectors: drugs and pharmaceuticals; medical devices and equipment; digital health solutions; research, medical and testing laboratories; bioscience distribution; bio-agriculture and ecosystem support.  

Surprisingly, life sciences are South Carolina’s fastest-growing industry — not more expected industries like automotive, tires, or aerospace.  

A 2017 study by USC’s Moore School of Business showed 402 life science companies in South Carolina –  now over 700 today.  It employed over 43,000 South Carolinians and generated $12 billion in impact with annual employment growth averaging 1.7 percent — over twice the rate (0.8%) of other industries from 2005-2017. Its average salary exceeded $78,000 -- way above other industries.  And importantly, all of South Carolina benefits, with organizations in 42 of 46 counties – and every county of the Upstate.

According to S.C. Secretary of Commerce Harry Lightsey III, life sciences has evolved into one of the most critical industries across South Carolina, home to distinguished medical device, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies – including U.S. and foreign-based companies like Bausch & Lomb, Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corporation and Nutramax.  The Palmetto State has become a top destination for the sector.

Early growth of life sciences was less intentional a decade ago.  Since 2017 the industry has become a primary focus for S.C. Commerce, and for regional economic groups like Upstate Alliance, GADC and others.  Many initiatives and plans are based on SC’s annually updated strategic plan to grow life sciences, first authored by SCBIO and now collaboratively updated with industry inputs.  

Initiatives focus on convening industry leaders, adding workforce recruitment and training programs, accelerating innovation, attracting capital and developing talent.  

“The workforce talent pipeline is very strong as we continue to see exceptional talent, diversity, and demand for degree programs in life sciences,” noted Dr. Cynthia Young, dean of Clemson University’s College of Science recently. “As we prepare the next generation of scientists and healthcare professionals this robust talent pipeline will continue to fuel our life sciences ecosystem.”

Life sciences growth thrives in areas with manufacturing expertise, research resources, an innovation ecosystem and quality healthcare.  On these, the Palmetto State matches up well with many states.  In other areas, like access to venture capital, we’re playing catch-up.

South Carolina has long been recognized as a top state for precision manufacturing, essential to producers of medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and medical products.  Such products require meticulous attention to detail and well-trained workforce, assets the state has a global reputation for.

Life sciences average triple the research and development spending of other industries. In fact, the U.S. accounts for almost half of the world’s $1.5 billion annual investment in life sciences R&D.  

The Upstate features growing research and innovation hubs -- by organizations like AVX, Abbott, Prisma Health, Greenwood Genetic Center and Clemson, and through initiatives by groups like Furman Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Scribble, and USC-Upstate’s Center for Innovation.  Our region offers expanding R&D and innovation resources, programs and partnerships needed by life sciences.

Anthony Herrera, chief innovation officer for Furman University and SCBIO board member recently commented that “South Carolina is producing top talent to fuel this industry.  Our quality of life, a focus on innovation, the talent we are turning out, multiple universities offering innovative partnerships with acclaimed faculty, students, and lab facilities – that’s how we grow and compete to bring companies here.”

South Carolina also has nationally recognized healthcare centers dotting the state.  From a Top 25 national organization like Prisma Health, to USC Medical School-Greenville, Spartanburg Regional Health, VCOM and MUSC, industry has no shortage of quality healthcare groups to partner with.

Despite economic contraction in many sectors, life sciences continued to grow rapidly during – and because of – Covid-19.  As international supply chains faltered, local life science companies created solutions as market demand intensified – driving new innovation.

Industry leaders attribute the sector’s rapid mobilization to public-private relationships developed and initiatives undertaken as Covid surged.  Across the Upstate, companies like Precision Genetics, VitaLink Research, Abbott and SoftBox Systems stepped up.

Precision Genetics recalibrated processes to become a COVID-19 test processing center for some of the state’s largest hospital systems.  VitaLink Research made national news as the only Upstate provider for Moderna’s vaccine trial.  Abbott launched a point-of-care test to detect positive Covid-19 infections in five minutes -- not five days.  And SoftBox Systems developed temperature-controlled shipping cases to get Pfizer’s precious vaccines across the state... and around the world.

In a recent commentary, Commerce Secretary Lightsey pointed out that “The world’s reliance on the life sciences sector has never been more in the forefront, and South Carolina is helping lead the charge.  Over the last 18 months, life sciences companies in S.C. – large and small – have revved up production of life-saving medicines and equipment, many of which are helping fight the Covid-19 pandemic.” 

Before COVID, life sciences were emerging as a force in our economy.  Now, its day has dawned.

Austin Shirley, VP of commercial operations for Diversified Medical Healthcare, recently cited a willingness to collaborate for the greater good as a hallmark of the state, noting that “Companies come here to grow and prosper. They see a great bioengineering program at Clemson, innovation and research at MUSC, investment and advice from SCRA, grant education by 3Phase, market insight from Upstate Alliance. SCBIO helps pull it all together. It’s opportunity unfolding.”

Dr. Von Nessen, the economist who authored the 2017 study, noted other drivers of growth:

Demand for health care and health-related services — driven by an above-average and growing population of seniors.

Positive business climate — a right to work state with a global reputation for quality and support.

Improving infrastructure — ports, highways, rail systems, technical colleges, and airports. 

Value — a reasonable cost of living and for doing business.  

The industry’s high multiplier effect of 2.9 percent, meaning that for every 10 life science jobs created, 19 more are created in related areas, is well above norms.

“Companies in life sciences often rely heavily on local suppliers, which leads to more secondary job creation,” Dr. Von Nessen wrote. “When you put the relatively high wage jobs that the life sciences sector supports together with a higher multiplier effect, you get a recipe for strong growth potential.”

In evaluating the industry’s progress here, VitaLink CEO Steve Clemons agrees, noting that “South Carolina was almost ‘purpose built’ to fight Covid with companies like Nephron and Vikor Scientific working on laboratory functions, others solving PPE  shortages like Zverse, folks like us advancing clinical trials.  We had the tools and talent in place then.  Now, each company can do what it does best to grow and help our state.”

Secretary Lightsey agrees, adding “Team S.C. is committed to cultivating this vital sector, to ensure the physical and economic wellness of our citizens.”

Erin Ford is Interim CEO of SCBIO -- a nonprofit organization dedicated to building, advancing, innovating and growing life sciences in South Carolina.  Learn more at