When he became president of the life sciences industry trade group SCBIO six years ago, Wayne Roper wasn't sure exactly how big an industry he was representing. No one did, really.
The organization was small and volunteer-driven, and the state's biotechnology business was scattered, without a clear sense for its scope. Life science firms often keep a low profile, and they run a wide gamut, from small groups of pharmaceutical researchers to software startups to big manufacturers, masking the industry's extent.
Now, that picture is coming together, and Roper thinks the companies he represents are starting to recognize what else is around them. So, he says, he's ready to move on.
Roper plans to leave Greenville-based SCBIO - short for the S.C. Biotechnology Industry Organization - in the next few months, after finishing a state-backed study cataloging the extent of the industry in the state. Once that's known, he says, someone else ought to decide where to guide it.
"We really didn't know what we would find. We really didn't know how big a community was there. In the past six years, I think we have built it to be a very viable and sustainable and really an energized community," Roper said. "It's now really just time for fresh talent, fresh legs, fresh vision and some people to scale it up from here."
The life sciences employ some 17,500 workers in South Carolina, the state Commerce Department says, in an industry that covers plenty of ground. It includes young pharmaceutical companies in the Lowcountry, manufacturers in Florence and Greenwood and medical device makers in the Midlands.
The study Roper is finishing, which is funded in part by the Commerce Department, aims to map out the industry's next steps by making sense of what exists and where the state has the most potential to grow - whether that's medical devices, say, or health care software.
Roper is credited with starting to pull together the state's research universities, government agencies and existing companies, but the group's new director will be tasked with getting into the nuts and bolts of growing the industry, said Thomas Finnegan, director of the Medical University of South Carolina's center for innovation and entrepreneurship.
That might mean urging real estate developers to build laboratory space, for instance, or building up a network of patent attorneys and consultants, said Finnegan, SCBIO's former board chairman.
Erin Ford, the current chairwoman, said she'd like to see the new leader grow the organization and become more of a conduit between higher education and industry. She hopes the group can help line up universities' research and teaching programs with companies' needs.
The new hire will also come at a time of growth for the industry, which has seen a flurry of activity spinning off from the state's research universities. The number of inventions logged at MUSC, for instance, has surged the last few years, Finnegan said, and new companies have formed around those findings.
That's helped attract the attention of the state's economic-development agencies, which are starting to look at the life sciences as a potential growth industry for the state. It's also gotten the attention of groups that have been mostly focused on giving software startups here a boost.
The Charleston Regional Development Alliance is studying what corners of the life science sector to target in the Lowcountry, and Charleston's Harbor Entrepreneur Center started a biotechnology-focused accelerator program last year.
The startups' work could prove to be especially key. Roper says he'd like to see the state become a bigger force in the higher-paying realm of research and development, not just medical-focused manufacturing. North Carolina's Research Triangle has built up a hefty concentration of that work, and it's helped fuel funding and job growth in states like California and Massachusetts.
"We're not going to surpass Boston or New Jersey or California, but we can do something," Roper said. "We don't have be bigger than Boston, but we could be doing a lot more. And we are."