Life sciences a growing sector in Georgia

2012 is shaping up as a robust year for the state’s life sciences industry.

The biggest splash came with the April announcement that Baxter International will build a $1 billion biopharmaceutical manufacturing plant in Stanton Springs, east of Atlanta, that will employ 1,500 people.

Charles Craig, president of Georgia Bio, an industry association, added Wednesday that other life sciences companies are expanding their workforces in the state.

Those companies include UCB, Dendreon, Arbor Pharmaceuticals and MiMedx, Craig said. “Life sciences in Georgia is having a great year, and it will continue in the future as the economy grows.’’

Craig made the comments at the 2012 Georgia Life Sciences Summit in Atlanta, where a University of Georgia report on the industry’s economic impact was released.

The life sciences industry includes companies involved in biotechnology, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, diagnostics and agricultural science. The industry and related university research, along with the CDC, have a $20 billion annual economic impact on the state and produce more than 94,000 jobs, the UGA report said.

“Georgia’s life sciences companies contribute substantial economic activity to Georgia,’’ said Jeffrey Humphreys, director of the UGA Selig Center for Economic Growth, who conducted the economic impact study.

The number of workers in life sciences rose 1.5 percent from 2007 to 2010, while overall employment for all industries in the state fell 7.9 percent, the report said.

Life sciences jobs tend to bring high pay, with an average annual salary of $64,473 in 2010.

Georgia ranks among the top 10 states in life sciences, Craig said.

Yet life sciences venture capital investment in the state fell to $36.2 million in 2010, a large drop from the $80.8 million in 2010.

“Georgia does well when it comes to entrepreneurial activity,’’ the report said. “But to continue to do so, Georgia needs an adequate supply of venture capital to fuel the growth of successful startups.’’

Life science firms are clustered in and around Atlanta, Athens and Augusta, the UGA report said.

Brien Johnson, a vice president of Plasma Bioscience at Baxter Healthcare, told the Life Sciences Summit on Wednesday that the Stanton Springs facility is already hiring, though the plant won’t begin manufacturing till 2018.

Georgia “very well aligns with Baxter values and culture,’’ Johnson said.

He said among the factors drawing Baxter were the political climate, existing workforce, incentives, and airport access.  A company spokeswoman cited Quick Start, the state’s workforce training program, which she said is “unique and represents a key advantage.”

“We’re very happy to be here,’’ Johnson said told summit attendees. “We hope to hire a lot of people from Georgia.’’

David Dodd, CEO of VaxyGen, told GHN that the combination of support and help from business groups, Georgia Bio, and the Georgia Research Alliance has fueled life sciences growth here.

The picture is not totally unclouded. Some companies, including Solvay and AtheroGenics, have left the state due to acquisition or bankruptcy.

On the other hand, Osmotica Pharmaceutical Corp. announced plans last year to invest $20 million in an R&D and manufacturing operation at the former Solvay site in Marietta.

Since the late 1990s, Dodd said, “the state is much more recognized in life sciences.’’

Another speaker at the summit, Alex Gorsky, CEO of Johnson & Johnson, noted that its suture maker, Ethicon, is expanding in Georgia. It will hire 75 people in Athens in a facility next to another J&J company, Noramco.

Ethicon already has a large facility in Cornelia, in northeast Georgia. That plant produces the majority of the world’s supply of surgical sutures.

With those operations, J&J employs more than 1,000 people in the state, Gorsky said.

“Clearly there’s a very strong commitment to entrepreneurship and diversity here in Georgia,’’ Gorsky said.