It started with a sunscreen towelette.
Life sciences entrepreneurs from Lehigh Valley, Pa. brought their idea and a business plan to the Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ (BFTP) business incubator on the campus of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. in 1987.
Today, that startup is known as OraSure Technologies, a life sciences manufacturing company with more than 700 employees and annual revenues approaching $400 million.
Still headquartered in Bethlehem, in the heart of the Lehigh Valley, OraSure Technologies shifted its focus from sunscreen towelettes to oral fluid testing in the mid-1990s and became a world leader in developing, manufacturing, and distributing rapid diagnostic tests. Its in-home HIV test was the first one approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It has since developed rapid tests for Ebola, hepatitis C, and COVID-19.
In 2022, OraSure Technologies expanded its Lehigh Valley presence with a new 139,000 square-foot manufacturing plant. The expansion will enable the company to produce more than 100 million in-home diagnostic tests per year. The added production helps to ensure that the United States is ready to respond quickly if, and when, another pandemic strikes.
The center of a life sciences “supercluster”
The story of OraSure Technologies is symbolic of the growth in life sciences in the Lehigh Valley.
A two-county region in eastern Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley is about 60 miles north of Philadelphia, 90 miles west of New York City, and within a one-day drive of about one-third of the U.S. population. It sits at the center of the life sciences and biotechnology “supercluster” on the East Coast that stretches from New England to the Carolinas.
At the time that the founders of OraSure Technologies were creating their business plan, the Lehigh Valley’s economy was driven by heavy manufacturing. Life sciences were barely a blip on the economic radar. Times were about to change.
In that same period, a small company that made disposable plastic syringes in Bethlehem was acquired by a German manufacturer of medical devices. It took on the name of its new owner: B. Braun Medical.
Braun eventually located its U.S. headquarters in Bethlehem and continued to expand its Lehigh Valley presence. In 2022, B. Braun completed a $200 million expansion of its Lehigh Valley manufacturing plant. The expansion nearly doubled the plant’s footprint and will, as it comes to full capacity, add 200 jobs to the 2,000 B. Braun already provides in the region. Life sciences companies have been important contributors to an overall economic transformation of the Lehigh Valley.
In the last 10 years, the region’s private-sector economic output has grown by 40% to a record $47 billion. That’s a larger gross domestic product (GDP) than the states of Vermont, Wyoming, and Alaska. It’s also added 37,000 jobs, with three-quarters of that growth in the key industrial sectors of manufacturing and distribution—making and moving products—that are at the core of what life sciences companies are doing in the Lehigh Valley.
Life sciences companies have added 1.3 million square feet of industrial building space in the Lehigh Valley since 2020. The region now has more than 170 life sciences facilities: offices, manufacturing plants, research and development operations, laboratories, and distribution centers.
This growing sector employs more than 6,500 people. Jobs in the life sciences are among the best-paying in the region, with average annual wages 55% higher than the average for Lehigh Valley jobs overall.
What’s the attraction to Lehigh Valley?
The Lehigh Valley is one of the fastest growing population centers in Pennsylvania, most notably among the 18-to-34 age group. A labor force of 1.7 million people lives within a one-hour drive.
In addition to convenient access to millions of consumers, the Lehigh Valley offers life sciences companies access to talent from the region’s 11 colleges and universities, plus top research universities that are nearby.
Companies can move products easily by road, rail, air, or sea because the Lehigh Valley is at the crossroads of major cross-country highways, has an intermodal rail terminal, and is close to multiple international airports and seaports, including the port of New York and New Jersey, the largest container port on the East Coast.
Beyond those fundamental attributes that businesses seek, the Lehigh Valley has unique assets, including BFTP, where OraSure got its start all those years ago.
An initiative created by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the early 1980s, the Ben Franklin network invests in early-stage technology companies and helps existing companies implement technologies that make them more competitive.
Its center for the Lehigh Valley and northeastern Pennsylvania, located at Lehigh University, has 129,000 square feet of incubator space, including wet labs, where companies like OraSure Technologies have the opportunity to start and grow.
One of Ben Franklin’s financing programs, the Life Science & Healthcare Technology Fund, invests up to $250,000 to match investments by healthcare providers, private corporations, and academic institutions that create startups in biologics, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, diagnostics, patient management software, patient safety, or community health solutions.
The Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC) is another regional asset that assists life sciences companies. LVEDC is a nonprofit, public-private, partnership-based organization that markets the region’s economic assets. Life sciences is a strategic target sector for business attraction, growth, and retention in the Lehigh Valley.
LVEDC provides life sciences companies with access to capital from public and private sources. In 2022, LVEDC helped CryoConcepts, a homegrown Lehigh Valley manufacturer of cryosurgery and cryotherapy products, secure a loan through the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority for new equipment that will enable the company to increase manufacturing and add jobs.
The strong fundamentals of the Lehigh Valley combined with continuing growth in life sciences, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology research and manufacturing set the stage for future innovation and expansion.
The next OraSure Technologies, B. Braun Medical, and CryoConcepts are going to be able to write their success stories set in Lehigh Valley.
About The Author Don Cunningham is President & CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. He has served in a variety of public and private positions for three decades, having twice been elected mayor of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, twice elected County Executive of Lehigh County, and served as a cabinet secretary. Prior to his public sector career, he worked in communications for a Fortune 500 company and as a journalist.
Originally published on Aug. 1, 2023 by LVEDC.