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The big COVID test: how Charleston is fighting the pandemic

Charleston Regional Development Alliance (CRDA)'s Mike Graney speaks to Investment Monitor on the business area's strong response to the global pandemic.

The Charleston region’s commitment to fostering the growth of innovative companies led to the development of the WestEdge Discovery District. A key benefit of the WestEdge community is its proximity to the Medical University of South Carolina, giving companies’ the benefit of connecting with top researchers.

Mike Graney, Vice President of Global Business Development at Charleston Regional Development Alliance (CRDA), has worked with Charleston’s life sciences sector and recruited companies from all over the world for many years. Mike also serves as a board member for the state’s industry association, SCBIO. Here, he explains the appeal of the Charleston market and how area businesses have responded to the challenge of COVID.

What do you do at the CRDA and what excites you about life sciences in the Charleston region?

I lead global business recruitment for the Charleston metro’s regional economic development organization. When I relocated to Charleston in 2014, the area was ripe for more life science activity. Given the location of the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) and the overall manufacturing prowess of the region, conditions are great for medical devices, pharmaceutical, and nutraceutical businesses. Companies can seamlessly tap into our life sciences ecosystem.

Life science companies in Charleston can be a “bigger fish in a small pond” and have direct access to senior people at MUSC, which may not happen elsewhere. This creates a tremendous opportunity for earlier-stage companies based more on the research side of R&D. And when it comes time to prototype, manufacture, and distribute, they benefit from the great manufacturing opportunities and access to the deepwater Port of Charleston that’s a conduit for raw materials coming in and for finished goods going out.

How have life science businesses in Charleston responded to the challenge of COVID?

Unlike in many industries, a lot of life sciences employees were coming in every day, working towards beating the pandemic. There was a real all-for-one and one-for-all attitude, with some powerful collaboration. MUSC partnered with other hospitals and healthcare institutions in town to monitor supplies of available beds, PPE and ICU status. Crucially, they are publishing real time epidemiological data showing incidence rates, which is helping businesses make operational decisions based on the science.

Many local businesses responded to help fight the disease. Boeing – not a life sciences company at all – started making masks and using its air fleet to distribute supplies. Vikor Scientific, a CLIA-certified, CAP-accredited diagnostic lab, increased staffing, accelerated production, and has shipped thousands of EUA-approved COVID-19 test kits across America. Vikor’s comprehensive COVID-19 test kit (which also tests for 49 other pathogens) is particularly suited for patients or healthcare workers displaying acute respiratory symptoms (typically requiring a full viral test panel) or are already hospitalized. Vikor’s rapid testing turnaround and its inclusion of virtually every test a clinician needs in a single test panel delineates it from many other sources.

What does this response really say about the spirit in Charleston?

What has impressed me the most is how our life sciences sector has been so solutions-oriented and so quick to act. Charleston is a mid-size market and I’ve already mentioned our ecosystem mindset with access to MUSC’s top decision-makers. It’s this supportive and agile environment that enables companies to pivot quickly. Companies that locate here say they have not found this kind of support in other communities.

Companies have been acting for the greater good. But it was also a statewide effort. South Carolina is a small state of just over 5 million people, but the resources open to businesses go well beyond that. There is a lot of support, particularly within the state, and a lot of collaboration.

Without that effort, companies such as Vikor Scientific and Vigilent Labs would not have been among the first in the US to offer rapid COVID-19 testing, which in turn helped to open the economy once the pandemic was a little bit further along. California was able to host one of the first sporting events – an off-road cycling competition – because of Vigilent’s testing solution.

How have companies handled recruitment since the beginning of 2020?

There’s been a lot written in the US about the mismatch between available jobs and available people. But this isn’t a trend we’ve seen locally, thanks partly to 33 people a day moving into the region. As a result, companies have been able to expand and, importantly, recruit for senior positions. We are seeing daily increases, as migration brings educated talent here. People realise now they can have a better life here, while still doing cutting-edge work, whether working for a local firm or working remotely for a company based elsewhere.

On the other side of the equation, we have a programme for workforce training in South Carolina called readySC. Manufacturing companies entering or expanding in our market can have the State advertise, pre-screen and provide initial training (following company guidelines) for their production workers, all at no cost to the firm.

What lessons have companies learned in the past 18 months, and what legacy will the pandemic leave behind?

The industry has learned the importance of building in resilience and building a more reliable supply chain and bringing more of that work back home. Across many industries, companies discovered their supply chains seized up for a variety of reasons during the pandemic. Production is overseas for a large part of the US medical device and pharmaceutical industry. This won’t change completely, and there’s still going to be some global integration. But after what they have been through, more companies will look to bring more aspects of their supply chain and production to a local or regional base.

But having a smart supply chain means more than simply choosing a geography because it’s physically close to a market. Companies need to consider the sector they are in and local costs, the size of the market appropriate for them, and crucially, the ability to partner locally. Getting in front of, and building lasting relationships with, key decision-makers is a must.