From Banktown to high-tech Biotown?

Now thought of as Banktown, Charlotte could soon start marketing itself as a hub of medical manufacturing companies and others connected to the life sciences.

The Charlotte Chamber says there are hundreds of unheralded companies in the area that turn scientific research into real products, such as artificial limbs and sterilization equipment. Many have sprung from the region's old-line manufacturing past.

Marketing the Charlotte area as a successful home to specialized manufacturing would be a high-tech addition to an image once defined by textiles and more recently by the rise of big industries such as banking and motorsports.

That news could be used as potent advertising to lure fresh investment to the 16-county region and build on the momentum of the $1.5 billion North Carolina Research Campus under construction in Kannapolis, said Erin Watkins, research director for the chamber.

To try and prove its point, the chamber won a $50,000 grant in June from the state-funded N.C. Biotechnology Center to research and define the area's biotech companies and their numbers. An initial study last year surprised Charlotte boosters because it suggested more than 500 companies connected to the life sciences were operating in the region. The chamber sought the grant to take a closer look at the operations, some mom-and-pop outfits largely unnoticed by the broader business community.

It would be one of several sectors that have existing clusters of businesses in the region that economic developers see as strengths, such as banking, defense, motorsports and energy companies, among others.

To be sure, the Charlotte region isn't and probably won't ever be a biotech hub on the order of Boston, San Diego, San Francisco or Raleigh. Those areas are famous for their multi-billion dollar research and drug-manufacturing economies based on international drug conglomerates and major universities, such as MIT and Harvard.

But Charlotte-area boosters believe they can carve a national reputation as a place where biotech research is spun into final products and services, such as retail DNA tests that can prove paternity or making the most high-tech artificial limbs, among others, said Tony Crumbley, vice president of research for the chamber.

“Raleigh thinks they have the only life sciences cluster in the state because they focus on research companies,” said Crumbley, who noted the Triangle's three major universities, medical community and Research Triangle Park. “But what Charlotte has been good at is the application of biotech research.”

The chamber has already identified nearly a hundred companies that manufacture and sell medical and dental devices.

“That's a serious number when you get up to that level,” said J. Mac Holladay, chief executive of Market Street Services, an Atlanta-based economic development consulting firm working on the Kannapolis project, a 300-acre research campus being built on the site of a former sheet and towel maker that closed its doors five years ago. “It's a good idea for them to look at the companies so they know what to build on.”

Holladay said it's natural for local recruiters to want to diversify Charlotte's image away from banking, a long-standing desire intensified by recent trouble in the sector that's threatening the local economy, he said.

The chamber's preliminary list includes Advanced Bionics in Charlotte, which makes and markets hearing aid implants, and SynerMed in Kannapolis, which provides financial services for healthcare companies. It includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has a seed-testing laboratory in Gastonia.

There's a venture capital firm, agricultural companies and biotech outfits offering exotic technologies that harness the power of sound waves, radiation, supercomputers and more.

Many of the companies are smaller outfits with specialized products, such as Charlotte's W.T. Hinnant Artificial Limb Co. and Absolute Proof DNA, a paternity testing company. Others are larger, such as German-based BSN Medical, which makes high-tech splints and bandages, and Alveolus Inc., which develops medical stents and is headquartered in Charlotte.

BSN, which has its North American headquarters in SouthPark., also knits special medical compression stockings in Rutherford College about 70 miles west of Charlotte. The stockings are designed to prevent dangerous blood clots from forming in the legs of bed-ridden patients and passengers on long flights.

When the German-based company decided to close an Ohio plant and consolidate operations in 1993, its most high-tech facility was in North Carolina, said Mark Pencola, the plant's manager. The company decided to build a new plant in Western North Carolina where textile mills were abundant, he said.

Fifteen years later, most of the mills are closed, but BSN's operation is still thriving because of its specialized medical products.

The company plans to stay and grow in the area, said Shaun Fry, general manager of its North American operations. The reasons aren't complicated, he said: “It's a nice place to live. It's got an airline hub, banking center and nice weather.”

Holladay said regions typically want to be known as homes to certain specialized disciplines or industries. But he said the categories, such as life sciences, are often too general. Charlotte's manufacturing past, however, makes it a natural terrarium for development of those companies, he said.

Using the grant money, researchers with Central Piedmont Community College are conducting the research for the chamber. It'll take almost a year to complete the tally. And the chamber's initial list of more than 500 will likely be reduced to a smaller group once each company is investigated.

One of the challenges will be deciding the criteria for defining the cluster, because there are pure biotech companies and others that use life science-based technologies in their manufacturing process, Crumbley said. The initial list also includes high-level support businesses, such as law firms and venture capital firms that focus on the biotech industry.

Bradley Arant Rose and White LLP, an Alabama-based law firm, is on the chamber's list. It has watched Charlotte's bio-tech sector grow quietly over the years.

The firm started building a life sciences law practice here about four years ago after watching its large pharmaceutical clients invest in several Charlotte biotech companies, said Kim Martin, a managing partner with the law firm. “We see lots of potential for growth.”

Scott Ludwig, a senior partner and co-chair of the firm's Life Sciences Practice Group, said the state is like others in trying to capitalize on a bio-business revolution. Charlotte's “high density” of home-grown operations gives it an edge, he said.