The National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative, President Biden’s recently signed Executive Order, is set to channel over $2 billion into the domestic biotechnology sector, with implications for life sciences employers ranging from drug manufacturing to talent development. In fact, the initiative could even reverse the trend of declining government funding for R&D as a percentage of GDP that dates back to the 1950s.
As laid out in the White House’s fact sheet, the goals of the initiative can be bucketed into the following five areas:
- strengthening supply chains
- lowering the cost of biotech-manufactured products
- creating new jobs
- improving health outcomes
- curbing carbon emissions
Given that leveraging “biotechnology for strengthened supply chains,” in the language of the bill, is quite literally the first order of business, let’s take a moment to zoom in on that area, answering two questions specifically: What are the key takeaways for life sciences companies’ supply chains? And what will be the downstream implications for talent?
supply chains: onshoring to increase resilience
Reliable supply chains are foundational to businesses across industries, to be sure. But for many in the life sciences sector, they’re effectively the business. How else to manufacture and deliver critical drugs to patients, for example?
Yet this has been a longstanding challenge for the industry — the pandemic only brought the problem into starker relief. Prior to COVID-19, for example, only about a quarter of all active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) in U.S. drugs were being produced domestically, with exports from China and India accounting for around 13 percent and 18 percent of APIs used in U.S. drugs, respectively.
Counteracting that by reshoring API manufacturing to the U.S. is something the initiative is explicitly intended to do. Most notably, the government has pledged $60 million to enhance the role of biomanufacturing for APIs as well as antibiotics and key ingredients for essential medications.
All told, these efforts should significantly increase the supply chain resilience of the life sciences sector at large. For patients, what’s more, it should translate to more reliable access to vital drugs and treatments, and potentially lower costs, as well.
talent: inclusive emphasis, but regional risks
Of course, you can’t radically onshore drug manufacturing unless you have the trained and qualified human resources to do it — and this is an industry that has had the second-lowest unemployment rate of all U.S. occupations in 2022.
Worth noting, in that regard, is that building up a more robust pipeline of domestic life sciences talent is explicitly part of the initiative. But what is that going to look like in practice?
For life sciences employers already struggling to source and hire qualified talent, there are two major things to notice about the bill’s language:
- The emphasis on talent development is attached to explicit concerns about “global competition for talent and leadership in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics research and education.” However, there are significant regional dimensions to the way the investment is structured, particularly around the formation of so-called “Regional Innovation Engines,” or RIEs (more on that below).
- Most of the investment in talent development appears to be geared toward increasing the diversity of the life sciences workforce. The initiative’s stated partnership between the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Society for Black Engineers, together with language around “expanding opportunities to underserved and historically excluded communities,” underscores this priority, as does testimony from participants in the White House’s “Summit on Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing,” which immediately followed the announcement of the initiative.
As to the latter, advancing diversity in the life sciences workforce is a highly commendable goal, of course. It could go a long way toward reversing the status quo in an industry where the majority of the workforce believes cultural/ethnic minorities are underrepresented in leadership roles. Meanwhile, other reports show that Black and Hispanic/Latinx individuals represent a scant six and seven percent of the total life sciences workforce, respectively. Hopefully, this signals the start of much-needed change.
As to the former, the regional focus may prove to be somewhat problematic for life sciences employers at large. Given the scope of the investment, it stands to reason that experienced, high-value employees, as well as emerging pools of developing talent, could be increasingly concentrated in locations proximate to the APM Cluster. And if that comes to pass, organizations headquartered elsewhere stand to miss out.
Rebuilding pharmaceutical supply chains. Reducing the cost of prescription drugs. Bolstering domestic availability of fuels, chemicals, materials and more. There’s a lot to like about the National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative, particularly at a moment when “4.0 technologies” — IoT, RPA, digital twins and more — are changing the DNA of supply chain management for life sciences companies and opening up bold new possibilities.
Viewed from the lens of the future of the workforce, however, it’s much less whether this massive and much-needed investment will effectively expand the pool of qualified talent, or simply place greater strain on resources that are already in desperately short supply, especially over the near term. Time will tell.