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Eric Stavale works in a Synthetech lab in Corvallis, which is expanding its production capacity but needs more qualified employees. - AP

Wanted: Skilled Workers

ALBANY — Synthetech is gearing up for growth.

The Albany company, which makes chemical ingredients for the pharmaceutical industry, recently invested half a million dollars to expand its production capacity and has been adding process operators at a steady clip, with about 30 on staff now compared with nine just three years ago.

Despite taking a loss last year, Synthetech has a healthy backlog of orders in the pipeline and is looking to bounce back strong if it can keep pace with demand. One potential chokepoint: a shortage of qualified workers.

"The issue is finding really well-trained operators," said Gregory Hahn, the company's president and CEO.

It's a lament heard throughout the state's fledgling bioscience industry, which includes medical device manufacturers, drug development companies, research labs and health care networks. While the sector has been identified as a key emerging cluster in the Oregon Business Plan formulated by business and elected leaders, it has yet to come into its own. Other obstacles include a lack of chemistry "wet lab" space available for lease, and limited access to capital.

In several parts of the state however — including the mid-valley — the industry is organizing to address the challenges that are holding it back.

To jump-start the process, the Portland-based Oregon Bioscience Association has formed three regional chapters, including the Willamette Valley Bioscience Industry Consortium.

Embracing an area from Salem to Eugene, the bioscience group has held two meetings so far and signed up nearly two dozen members, with potentially dozens more in the wings.

"I have a prospect list of 67 companies," said Barbara Bessey of Linn-Benton Community College, the new group's coordinator. "Every time I talk to someone, they give me new prospects."

Although the industry is just beginning to get off the ground here, Bessey is convinced that the Willamette Valley could become a national leader in the field with the support of research coming out of Oregon State University, the University of Oregon and the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute.

She said a core of established firms such as Synthetech, Tec Labs and Oregon Freeze Dry in Albany paired with a ready pool of graduates in science, engineering and business means a strong future for the industry.

"That sets the stage," Bessey said. "Our region, the Willamette Valley, is poised to become one of the leading bioscience concentrations in the country."

A lot of hurdles remain to be cleared before that can happen. A recently released state- and industry-sponsored study found that "Oregon has a key strength in bioscience manufacturing" but faces several challenges in trying to capitalize on that advantage.

Challenges include a need for more workers, especially those who can fill senior technical and management positions, greater access to in-state sources of early-stage financing, more business incubators equipped with wet lab and clean room space, better links among biotech companies and teamwork between the industry and the state's research institutions.

Progress is being made on many of those fronts.

The Oregon Bioscience Association has developed a number of turnkey technical training programs that can be transplanted from Portland to other parts of the state as needed. Bessey is working to bring a number of those courses to Linn-Benton Community College.

Conversations sparked by the first Consortium meetings already are leading to increased collaboration within the industry, Bessey said, including an offer by Oregon Freeze Dry to make some of its sophisticated wet lab space available to other local companies.

And discussions are under way on setting up a networking event at Oregon State University to showcase current research projects and connect companies with potential employees.

That's exactly the kind of thing that Synthetech, a longtime Oregon Bioscience Association member, was hoping to see from the Willamette Valley Bioscience Industry Consortium.

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