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HudsonAlpha Institute builds base in Huntsville for biotech research

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — A biotechnology park – the brainchild of the successful Huntsville entrepreneurs behind the HudsonAlpha Institute – showcases the promise of biotechnology in Alabama.

Entrepreneur Lonnie McMillian co-founded ADTRAN, the second largest supplier of telecommunications equipment in the U.S. Jim Hudson Jr. created Research Genetics, the world’s leader in genetic linkage products. Research Genetics was an important player in the Human Genome Project and was sold to Invitrogen in 1999 for $139 million.

So McMillian and Hudson created a new dream: Launch a non-profit genomics and genetics research institute that also would encourage and foster new entrepreneurial businesses.

They raised $80 million in private funds and $50 million more from the State of Alabama and built the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology the cornerstone of a newly created 150-acre biotechnology research campus that has room for more building. Growth in five short years has been meteoric.

  • By 2007 they persuaded Dr. Rick Myers  to leave his post as chair of genetics at Stanford University School of Medicine and become the president of HudsonAlpha. They soon opened the door of the 270,000-square-foot HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. The building features a stimulating, creative design.
  • In 2009, they opened a second building on the biotechnology research campus, a conference center.
  • By 2011, all the infrastructure of the 150-acre biotechnology campus was finished, and by 2012 the shell and core of another, 88,000-square-foot research building was complete.

Some 170 researchers work in the non-profit Institute. Its genomic and genetics work has included an important role in the recent Encyclopedia of DNA Elements project (ENCODE); a close collaboration in cancer research with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, one of the premier cancer research institutions in the U.S.; and a wide variety of human health research like psychological disorders, immunological disorders, neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, developmental and cognitive delays in children, Gulf War illnesses and nuclear receptors in gene regulation. (Check out HudsonAlpha’s YouTube channel.)

Four hundred more people at the HudsonAlpha Biotechnology Institute work in 24 for-profit business ventures that focus on areas like infectious disease diagnostics, immune responses to disease and cancer, protein crystallization, lab-on-a-chip technologies and improved agricultural technologies.

The HudsonAlpha Institute building is designed to maximize interaction among all of those researchers. Forty-five percent of the Institute is common area – much greater than the usual 15 percent – and whiteboards line the halls, covered with notes from synergistic discussions.

“Interaction and collaboration are part of our nature,” said O’Neal Smitherman, executive vice president of HudsonAlpha. “We try to find a way to get the best of non-profit research and the best of building businesses.”

The HudsonAlpha Institute is the centerpiece of the 150-acre Cummings Research Park Biotech Campus, part of the 4,000-acre Cummings Research Park. Cummings Research Park is the largest research park in the United States as measured by employers and employees, Smitherman said, and the second largest in land area, trailing only North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Cummings Research Park has a dynamic mix that includes Fortune 500 companies, international and local high-tech firms, and federal contractors working in space and defense.

Huntsville is a thriving community with a metro area population of 418,000. Its transformation to a high tech center began when scientists and engineers working on U.S. Army guided missiles moved to North Alabama from Texas in 1950. That team included talented Germans led by Wernher von Braun. The Germans were charmed by the hills surrounding Huntsville, saying they reminded them a bit of the Harz Mountains.

During America’s race to the moon, those rocket scientists developed the Saturn booster engines and the Apollo moon landing program for NASA. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center museum in Huntsville has more than 1,500 rocketry and space exploration artifacts, including a massive replica of the Saturn V moon rocket.

Today Huntsville is said to have the highest per capita number of scientists and engineers in the U.S., as well as a vibrant angel investment contingent.

“What we do here, is not what people expect of Alabama,” said Smitherman. “There’s a culture developing here that is something special.”

Companies in Europe and Asia are already showing interest in locating on Huntsville’s Biotechnology Campus, Smitherman said.

The HudsonAlpha Institute website explains that, “Competitive, long-term ground leases, as well as build-to-suit facilities are available for organizations seeking to build on the biotech campus.”

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