Biological manufacturing company gets its start at NDSU
Published August 2016
In 2002, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Protection turned to a pair of NDSU graduates when the West Nile virus threatened to wipe out the world’s 200 remaining California condors. Michael Chambers and John Ballantyne created a DNA-based vaccine in less than two months. It was the first ever used outside a trial setting.
This vaccine is an example of their specialty. Their company, Aldevron, has created specialized genetic material used in DNA-based vaccines and many gene therapy and gene editing treatments since it opened in 1998. The company has grown to include three locations in Fargo, North Dakota, Madison, Wisconsin, and Freiburg, Germany. But it got its start in Fargo, specifically, at NDSU.
Aldevron’s international recognition can seem surreal at times, considering its humble start. After graduation, Chambers wanted to start a research company and eventually teamed up with Ballantyne. They were unable to secure financial backing from investors to build a laboratory and decided to finance the venture themselves. NDSU provided a solution, allowing the entrepreneurs to rent laboratory space and equipment in Hultz Hall.
Ballantyne describes the experience as the perfect incubator situation with relative freedom to operate and start a company. "The aim was to grow quickly, move out and provide jobs," he said.
Chambers and Ballantyne are examples of NDSU graduates who have started successful businesses in Fargo. Chambers earned his bachelor’s degree in biotechnology in 1997 and is Aldevron’s president and CEO, while Ballantyne, who completed his doctorate in pharmaceutical sciences in 1997, is the company’s chief science officer.
They work with some of the world’s leading researchers to eliminate disease. Aldevron provides biological products used in therapeutics for diseases with serious unmet medical needs, including intractable cancer, metabolic and neurological disorders, and viral illnesses, including West Nile. The company is at the center of a revolution in gene therapy, gene editing and immunotherapy that begins to address diseases with very high morbidity and mortality rates and, in some cases, provide an actual cure.
Fargo-Moorhead businesses, such as Aldevron, depend on NDSU to educate professionals for North Dakota’s expanding workforce. As a global leader in biotechnology, Aldevron needs professionals with degrees in microbiology, biotechnology, chemistry, biology, business and finance.
Approximately 30 percent of Aldevron’s Fargo workforce of 115 is NDSU graduates.
“The relationship with NDSU allows us to quickly identify potential candidates and understand what course work is applicable to the open positions at Aldevron. This is helpful as our company is so rapidly growing,” said Michael Chambers, Aldevron’s CEO. “We believe that NDSU graduates are highly sought after employees and are pleased to be able to recruit current graduates as well as past graduates to return back to the area.”
Chambers and Ballantyne say being located in Fargo is central to their success because of low business costs, regional work ethic, strong economy and access to educated professionals. Ballantyne likes being able to drive to work in 10 minutes, unlike his counterparts on the East Coast and California who commute up to two hours.
“NDSU is certainly a major component of why we are here and why we continue to be here,” Chambers said.