Tobacco’s surprising legacy in North Carolina

The Economist profiles how the tobacco industry has help prepare North Carolina to compete in the 21st Century:

Tobacco’s legacy to Winston-Salem is far from being merely architectural. Because it has been such an important cash crop for so long, it is among the most studied plants in the world—Richard Reich, the assistant commissioner for agricultural services in North Carolina’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, calls it “the laboratory white rat” of the plant world. Much of that study, of course, was done by tobacco companies, and Targacept, one of the bioscience companies in the Piedmont Triad Research Park, is among the fruits of that labour. Spun out from RJR in 2000, and headed by J. Donald deBethizy, a former vice-president of R&D at RJR, Targacept is developing a range of drugs that target the body’s nicotinic receptors to treat a range of nervous-system disorders, including depression, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.

Almost makes up for all of that emphysema and stuff doesn’t it?  Seriously, this is an example of how long-term success with one industry sometimes does prepare a region to excel in an entirely new venture.  But this kind of “legacy innovation” is not as common as one would suppose.  Indeed, it was similarly argued that Ireland’s long tradition of brewing and distilling prepared them to compete in some of the high tech businesses that fueled that country’s growth in the days before the crash.  Others credit a change in Irish tax policy combined with generous transfer payments to Ireland from the EU for the short-lived “Celtic Tiger.

In any case, it doesn’t happen often, but sometimes a region’s industrial past can lay the ground work (in terms of workforce preparation and organization cultures) for the next wave of innovation.  In North Carolina’s case, government supported R&D for the tobacco industry helped build capacity that seems to serve the emerging biotech industry quite well.

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