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Clemson life science programs double in size

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SCBIO's Erin Ford introduces Chappel, Stefanich, Young and Shirley on a life science panel Saturday at the S.C. Manufacturing Conference and Expo. (Photo/Molly Hulsey)Before leaving his post at Louisiana Economic Development, South Carolina native James Chappell was a skeptic.

“Every state thinks they are going to succeed in life sciences,” Chappell said, unsure whether the Palmetto State has what it takes. “I started kind of doing my research, and I was blown away with all the things that have happened in South Carolina since I left, specifically in the life sciences industry. I was even more blown away by the last few days here and meeting a lot of people on this stage and the companies that have had unbelievable success, some in just a couple of years. I knew I made the right decision.”

The new SCBIO chief gestured to other life science leaders from around the state on the stage with him Thursday at the S.C. Manufacturing Conference and Expo: Rymedi’s David Stefanich, Clemson University’s Cynthia Young and Diversified Medical Healthcare’s Austin Shirley.

“Do you remember when BMW came to South Carolina? Do you remember before Boeing?” Chappell asked. “That’s what’s happening now, but it’s in the life sciences. Let’s look at that trend. If we keep doing the job that we should be doing, we can look back in 10 or 20 years, and the way people think about those manufacturers, they’ll think about the life sciences.”

South Carolina’s growing workforce appears to be one of the most promising catalysts of life science development in the state, he said. Especially since human capital is often the weakest link in the life science supply chain – and, on a national level, it’s only getting worse, according to Young, dean of Clemson’s college of science.

“There’s a national huge enrollment cliff coming in 2026. South Carolina is going to weather that storm beautifully,” she said. “So we want to keep these students here because everyone else is going to be poaching these students.”

Clemson University has mitigated the brain drain – and provided additional learning opportunities for students to keep apace of industry trends outside of the academic sphere – by tuning into the apprenticeship and training needs of life science partners through economic development groups like SCBIO, she said.

The school has also put a stake in the ground for investment in the field.

“One of the things we have been talking about is how do we get relevant experience here, because we know if students work here or intern here, they’ll stay here,” Young said.

She also invited companies to directly voice workforce needs to schools like Clemson.

“Who are the matchmakers?” she asked. “First and foremost, SCBIO is the matchmaker in the hub. I’ve used y’all so many times to connect with someone you were looking for. The other hub – it doesn’t matter if you’re Clemson, USC or MUSC – all of us have certain titles of people: vice president of research is a really good title to contact if it’s a startup incubator kind of thing. If you’re looking for student talent, workforce talent, most of us are deans – the dean of science or dean of engineering – but that VPR can get you to anybody. They will connect you to any of us.”

Staying in step with the tech school system has also helped keep S.C. students close to home, she said, since tech students that bridge over to university science programs are much more likely to remain in state.

And so far, it seems to be working.

“The student demand for the life sciences has been over the top,” she said.

The genetics and biochemistry program at Clemson University has grown by 50% in five years, with biology ranking among most popular major at the school.

“They’re voting with their feet,” she said. “About half of kids go on to graduate school or medical schools – a lot of MDs and Ph.D.s – but really gravitating to bench science. One thing we do really well is research, and they are all doing research projects. What they are starting to do is internships and entrepreneurial experience.”

Companies like Greenville’s Rymedi and Diversified Medical Healthcare have taken notice, as the need for not only more talent but multi-faceted talent ramps up.

Diversified Medical Healthcare has offered diagnostic tests in the area since 1991, but COVID-19 pushed the company into another league altogether with automated testing throughput of about 3,000 tests a day during the height of the pandemic, according to Shirley, vice president of commercial operations at Diversified Medical Healthcare.

But more automation didn’t mean fewer employees. Quite the contrary.

“We went from about 150 employees to about 400,” he said. “There has been tremendous growth. Now, we’re looking beyond that. So, hopefully, we’ll get some of those talented students from Clemson over there, with the help of SCBIO and the ecosystem here for the life sciences.”

Stefanich said the industry and his company has a targeted need for employees with practical experience across a variety of disciplines.

“I want you to be a master of many, not limited by one,” he said.

Reach Molly Hulsey at 864-720-1223.

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