Summit-goers seek ways to grow biotech
FARGO, N.D. — The Upper Great Plains is fertile ground for bioindustry entrepreneurship, but sometimes public-private partnerships can help grow it.
Dozens of industry, government and university experts and students from surrounding states came together on Nov. 2 in Fargo for another Bioindustry Summit to get a broad view of the opportunities, compare notes and lift up examples.
Michael Chambers, CEO of Aldevron LLC of Fargo, talked about his company's success story. Started in 1998, the company now employs 200 people, including 160 in Fargo and the rest at Madison, Wis., and Freiberg, Germany. The company is building a new facility near the Microsoft location in south Fargo.
Chambers, 42, grew up in Carrington, N.D., in a multi-generational family of beekeepers (and said he dreams to retire to beekeeping.) He had an interest in science and went to North Dakota State University where he earned three related undergraduate science degrees in biotechnology, chemistry and microbiology. As a sophomore he developed technology called "plasma DNA," which became the basis for the company.
He also works with a company called Agathos of Fargo that develops new cell lines that would complement Aldevron and with Maxigen in Sunnyvale, Calif., which improves and designs new proteins and enzymes for ethanol production.
Aldevron partners with pharmaceutical companies and agriculture biotech companies to figure out how to "design and make large quantities of the biotech products they require to develop their innovations."
About 85 percent of Aldevron's company's activities relate to human health and the rest involves areas of agriculture. About 15 percent of the company's efforts are making gene editing enzymes.
Gene editing was first described, or invented in 2012, using the Cas9 protein to go in and modify gene sequences, or insert new gene sequences. The phenomena is known as CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, an increasingly easy tool.
Cas9 is used to develop new crops and change the genome of existing crops to improve traits. Aldevron started making editing material in 2013 for multiple clients he can't name.
"These clients are investing billions of dollars into the development of these things. There's a lot of intellectual property associated with them," he said.
"When a company wants to produce a new transgene ... into a crop, they have to show that it's safe," he said. "We will produce very large quantities of whatever that protein is — whatever they're adding — to test feed studies producing, whatever they're adding."
Chambers said he doesn't think the edited-gene crops will be regulated in the same way as genetically-modified organism crops, for which DNA out of the species is added.
"We're not introducing foreign sequences into the DNA, we're modifying or editing the sequences in these crops."
There is a lot of debate on regulations and ethics, but he doubts whether the outcome will affect his business much. Even with the regulations on GMOs, companies are continuing to make them and improve them. He said the debate probably will continue between those who have concerns about GMOs and others who say agriculture is feeding people who otherwise wouldn't have food with developments such as drought-resistant corn.
Chambers pointed to other entrepreneur mentors in the Fargo area who have succeeded and said opportunities still exist.
"It's all about perseverance," he said, adding that now is a "great time in our history" for that, and that North Dakota is an excellent state for it.
Joni Johnson, executive director of South Dakota Biotech Association, said that last year a consultant did a South Dakota bioscience "unified strategy" that identified the state's workforce, existing companies and where are the gaps.
"Our gaps are venture capital funding and consulting — business mentoring," Johnson said. The state economic development officials are working on addressing those issues.
South Dakota is working to recruit biotech companies but also have efforts to develop what is already there.
"It's much easier to grow organically, I think, than to go to California and say, 'Come to South Dakota,'" Johnson said.
South Dakota BIO, based in Sioux Falls,S.D., is a state affiliate of the national Biotech Industry Association. It works with universities and tech transfer offices to put together programs and provide relationships for consultants to help fledgling companies "emerging through the valley of death identify some (venture capital) funding on their feet," Johnson said. The ventures range include human health, renewable energy and biotechnology.
Kevin Kephart, head of industry relations for Indigo Ag Inc. of Boston, Mass., started South Dakota State University's tech transfer office in 2008 while working as vice president for SDSU's research and economic development.
"You just build up that culture of innovation, invention disclosure, taking on responsibility on behalf of those employees to carry out the best way possible," he said.
SDSU helped recruit or attract Bel Brands USA, the cheese maker, to Brookings, S.D. There isn't any state intellectual property in Bel Brands, but SDSU's dairy science department — and its graduates — were part of the attraction, Kephart said.