It is no secret that Charleston’s life sciences sector has enjoyed a mini-boom in recent years. The region is currently home to more than 300 businesses in the sector, including medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturers, diagnostic and research laboratories, and service companies. This thriving ecosystem means that business leaders can easily access other senior decision makers and investors, as well as getting to share practical tips and advice with industry peers. The area is rapidly developing into a sector-specific hub.
Notable names located in the region include BeliMed, BD, Hill-Rom, Thorne, and XIFIN. The latter opened in 2021 and plans to employ 150 people. Collectively the sector accounts for more than $11bn of economic activity statewide per year and is a key contributor to a labour force growing within the Charleston metro area three times faster than the US average.
So, what is the reason the area is creating such a buzz, and why are businesses choosing to invest there? Here are some possible answers.
The talented, educated workforce
It is an understatement to say that businesses in the life sciences sector rely on an educated workforce. Ask most CEOs in the sector to name key challenges, and recruitment and talent management are often high on the list. However, in Charleston these are less likely to be a challenge and more likely to be an opportunity.
Charleston’s regional population is currently 820,000 and is projected to reach one million by 2029. More than 36,000 people work in Charleston’s advanced industries, and two-thirds of all workers have some form of post-secondary education. Approximately 40,000 university and tech students factor in the region’s talent pipeline in any given year. Any business looking to locate there will be optimistic about being able to hire top talent.
With the range of science, technology, data, manufacturing and engineering skills that companies need, Charleston’s skilled and educated workers are a boon to companies looking to establish operations.
While many graduates working in Charleston may have attended universities elsewhere, businesses and students take advantage of an established and potent local academic institution: the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). Annually, the organisation attracts more than $250m in research funding, and in 2020 supported 52 start-ups. In the same year, it was involved in 587 ongoing clinical trials, and filed over 450 domestic and international patents.
In terms of footprint, MUSC’s four hospitals in downtown Charleston and satellite offices statewide offer more than 100 outreach locations, clinical affiliations with other hospitals and an enviable telehealth network that opens doors for business. This represents healthy opportunities for businesses directly involved in research, as well as the wider ecosystem.
Business leaders in pharmaceutical, medtech or biotech startups can locate to Charleston knowing that they will find a community of like-minded leaders, many of whom will have experienced the same growth journey they are on. In addition, a lot of these leaders have leaned on the help and support of the MUSC network at some point.
Interconnectivity, infrastructure and office space
No city operates in a vacuum, and the Charleston region would suffer without strong interconnectivity with other major metro areas and their associated business communities. Charleston International Airport offers non-stop flights to more than 40 major US cities, including Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, New York and Seattle. British Airways operates a seasonal, non-stop flight from Charleston to London Heathrow, providing access to 119 countries with only a single layover.
Of course, businesses don’t simply look to air as the only means of transport, and the Charleston Harbor Deepening Project promises to facilitate a growing number of large, cargo-laden vessels calling on Charleston. This is due to be completed in mid-2022 and will make the Port of Charleston the deepest port on the East Coast. Already it is serving post-Panamax sized ships and has been lauded as the most productive US port.
For local trips, average commutes are short, lasting just over 27 minutes, according to the US Census Bureau. This is complemented by an abundance of quality office space. Charleston Metro currently has some 647,000 ft² under construction and from the first quarter of 2020 to 2021, vacancy rates increased from 8.6% to 13% as new spaces came to market. Office sales reached an all-time high in 2020, valued at approximately $360m.
Lifestyle and the cost of living
Charleston is perhaps most readily associated with tourism, even if the true picture involves sectors as diverse as manufacturing and IT. With its architectural heritage, access to the Atlantic Ocean and award-winning cuisine, holidaymakers flock by their millions every year to the metro area – but what attracts the tourists also appeals to the businesses and workforce that choose Charleston as their home.
With an enviable number of independent shops, access to green spaces, attractive nightlife and mild weather, Charleston is a talent magnet for the millennial workforce. Indeed, according to USA Today, the 2-to-1 ratio of twenty-somethings to teens suggests that many students who come to study in Charleston simply never leave after they graduate.
Increasingly, similar things are being said of the many life sciences leaders who are bringing their businesses to the city and staying as they grow and expand in the booming, supportive ecosystem it provides.
Download the white paper ‘Charleston, USA: A life sciences hub’ here.