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Firms react, mobilize after report citing growth of LI pharma industry

Bottles of zinc caplets on an assembly line

Bottles of zinc caplets on an assembly line at Nature's Bounty in Bohemia on Jan. 26, 2017. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

Long Island’s drug and vitamin industry has expanded its workforce by 64 percent in the past dozen years, making the sector the biggest player in local manufacturing, according to a new report.

Although drug and vitamin factories have been on Long Island for more than 50 years, the industry “has largely flown under the radar, never gaining much fanfare or awareness for the role it plays in the region’s larger economy,” states the 47-page report prepared by the Suffolk County Industrial Development Agency and the Workforce Development Institute, a statewide nonprofit group focused on worker training. While the Suffolk IDA paid for the report, its conclusions cover Nassau as well. The report was made available online Tuesday morning at suffolkida.org/how-we-help/thought-leadership/.

Prominent drug and vitamin manufacturers on Long Island expressed interest Tuesday in establishing a group to advocate for the industry’s needs, including worker training.

Executives from the Nature’s Bounty Co., the vitamin behemoth in Ronkonkoma, and Applied DNA Sciences Inc., a biotechnology firm in Stony Brook, volunteered to help form a trade association for the region’s pharma industry.

The CEO of the Long Island Association business group pledged to work with them, saying its LI-Bio Committee could be spun off as a separate entity. Over the past 30 years, LIA committees on housing and tourism became stand-alone nonprofit organizations. 

Creation of “an industry-led” trade association for the Island’s growing pharmaceutical and nutraceutical industry is the top recommendation of the research report, which was released Tuesday at a meeting of LI-Bio. 

The report found pharma employment has increased 64 percent in Nassau and Suffolk counties since 2004. Nearly 10,000 people worked at drug and vitamin producers as of June 2017, up from almost 6,000 in 2004, census data show.

Pharma now is the biggest player in local manufacturing, employing double the number of people as the second-largest sector, instruments.

Still, pharma’s importance to the regional economy isn’t well known and the industry has weak ties to economic developers and educators, which could help address a chronic shortage of skilled workers, according to the report.

About 90 people attended a presentation about the report in Melville Tuesday morning. When it came time for audience questions, William Mannix, executive director of the Islip Town Industrial Development Agency, asked about the proposed trade association.

“A regional trade association is an important takeaway from the report,” he said. “Is there any work being done right now to effectuate that? Are there any companies willing to do the work that creating a regional trade association involves?”

Stratis Philippis, general counsel and chief compliance officer at Nature’s Bounty, responded, “We want to do more, participate more in LI-Bio, kind of revive the whole initiative. 

"From our perspective, it’s something we are committed to looking into further,” he added. Nature’s Bounty employs 2,000 people at 11 facilities in Suffolk.

Judy Murrah, chief information officer at Applied DNA, which uses plant DNA to make anti-counterfeiting and crime prevention products, said, “I’m happy to get involved, to help lead groups.”

The LIA started LI-Bio in 2016 to increase cooperation and communications between local research institutions, and pharma and biotech firms. The committee is led by executives from Canon U.S.A. and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

LI-Bio founder Kevin Law, who also is LIA CEO, “What could be a good compromise is for industry to take over LI-Bio because we already have the foundation there.”

He said the Long Island Housing Partnership, the largest builder of affordable housing locally, was born out of an LIA committee. Ditto for Discover Long Island, the tourism promotions group. 

“So, similarly perhaps the LI-Bio Committee can morph into this industry-led sector group,” Law said. “Together, I think we can figure this out.”

The industry’s nearly 160 local participants manufacture 4,500 products, from Rolaids and Dramamine to prescription drugs and vitamins to aspirin and cold medicine sold under the CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid store brands.

Pharma has added more jobs on the Island since 2004 than in North Carolina and southern California, two other industry centers. And pharma’s employment in the metropolitan area, excluding Nassau and Suffolk, shrank by nearly 25,000 jobs in the period, according to census data.

IDA board chairwoman Theresa Ward said the agency began studying drug and vitamin companies three years ago as part of an effort to “pinpoint sustainable economic and job-growth opportunities for our businesses and residents.”

The IDA collaborated with the workforce institute to produce the report, which includes information from two roundtable discussions with industry executives convened by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, and tours of 12 factories.

Rosalie Drago, the workforce institute’s Long Island director, said she hopes the report will raise awareness among economic developers, educational institutions and young people about pharma's potential.

“Everybody talks about brain drain, who's leaving Long Island and what opportunities they think are elsewhere,” she said. “But the pharma/nutra industry has a great deal of jobs that are for entry level — high school diploma only — all the way up to PhD. Nobody knows this industry is here and that these jobs pay well.”

Drago said local pharma jobs pay, on average, $30,360 to $84,648 per year, depending on a worker’s skills and job title.

She also said attracting and retaining employees was the top challenge identified by the 24 companies that provided information for the report.

“Workforce development is a priority,” Amy von Walter, a spokeswoman for Nature's Bounty, said on Monday. “We have been taking steps to increase our capabilities around talent acquisition, training and other strategies that enhance both the knowledge and skill sets for the thousands of colleagues that we employ.”

Other challenges cited in the report include a scarcity of production space, ownership changes, entreaties from other states urging companies to leave Long Island, and weak ties to high schools and colleges that could provide future employees.

“Executives state plainly that their investments on Long Island are now so substantial that it is prohibitively expensive and complicated to relocate out of state,” the report states.

Still, the IDA and workforce institute made a number of recommendations to help bolster pharma companies. In addition to establishing a trade association and worker training facility, these include retrofitting industrial buildings for drug and vitamin production, and incorporating required certifications into degree programs.

Bellone said, “By examining our current assets and challenges, we are able to develop a clear picture of what a thriving life-sciences ecosystem should look like and set a path forward to help ensure we achieve that goal.”

Law said the industry "accounts for thousands of jobs and is helping our region develop a 21st century economy driven by discovery and innovation. That is something we need to continue to support."

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