This North Dakota Company Is Solving Some Of The World’s Biggest Problems

Written by: Andrew Jason

From humble beginnings in a lab at NDSU, Aldevron is now helping solve some    of the biggest medical problems. With the construction of a 500,000 square foot campus, the company is preparing for rapid growth and is looking to grow to 1,000 employees over the next few years.

That begs the question: how are they handling this growth?

That’s what we went to find out.

The Problems They’re Solving

Thanks to plasmid DNA created by Aldevron, its clients are addressing some of the most challenging diseases. An example of the type of client Aldevron works with is AveXis, a biotechnology company that has developed a sequence of a gene that works to correct the genetic defect in spinal muscular atrophy patients.

Spinal muscular atrophy is a genetic disorder that’s characterized by weakness and wasting of muscles. It’s caused when a patient can’t properly manufacture a protein because their gene sequence that codes for that protein has a mistake. Because of this, patients often lose the ability to move and may die as young as two-years-old if left untreated. The ability to correct the gene is delivered to a patient’s cells using plasmids, causing it to start producing the proper protein, preventing the wasting of muscle tissue.

“In this case, some kids are running around at 6-years-old,” said James Brown, VP of Corporate Development and Chief of Staff at Aldevron.

Genetic material developed in Fargo is enabling the biotechnology industry to have a significant impact on patients with severe unmet medical needs. It’s all in a day’s work at Aldevron.

While the exact details of what they do can be difficult to understand if you don’t have a basic understanding of biology (which we are quick to admit that we don’t), the big picture results are amazing. Thanks to processes developed by Aldevron, they are able to quickly and affordably create plasmid DNA.

“One of the main areas that we work in is called genetic medicine,” said Brown. “The general concept is that we understand a lot about DNA now and how cells process it and use DNA’s information to go about their business to do whatever they do. Our clients use plasmid DNA we provide to manipulate the genetic material in a cell to treat a disease.”

In fact, their growth is evident to anybody who drives by their headquarters in Fargo as they’re constructing several more buildings in addition to the one that opened last September. Once their new offices are open, they’ll employ 1,000 people.

Aldevron is striking while the industry is strong. However, the industry is changing so quickly, it is making planning for growth difficult.

“The real challenge for us is that we don’t know where the industry is going to go,” said Henry Hebel, Chief Operating Officer of Aldevron.

It’s very hard for us to predict what kind of buildings we need 5 to 10 years from now because this is so cutting edge. The technology we expect to be completely different five years from now, so how do you build a building to accommodate that?”

Their Background

This growth is impressive, especially when you consider that Aldevron was started out of a lab at NDSU. Michael Chambers, the president and CEO, founded the company in 1998 with John Ballantyne, CSO, and has seen a meteoric rise in the last 20 years.

However, no matter their size, the company’s mission remains the same. And that’s something the leadership team is preaching as they grow.

“As I’ve said, I’m not from North Dakota but I take that history of the company and view myself as a caretaker of the story, mission and company,” said Hebel. “My staff and myself who have to design these buildings, we take this very seriously. I think the team does get a sense of family, history and community in that way.”

And that mission is attracting the right talent. Brown has worked across the country in the biotech industry. Victoria Sowemimo, Director of Quality Assurance, moved from North Carolina. Mike

Busch, VP of Human Resources, worked in the automotive, appliance and wholesale distribution industries before moving into biotech with Aldevron. The mission they are on is clearly attracting top-tier talent.

“I have worked in the pharmaceutical industry globally for many years and I was looking for an opportunity to use my skills in the gene therapy sector, which is new and fast-growing,” said Sowemimo. “I read about Aldevron and the vision of our founders Michael and John, which is at the cutting edge in this industry. There is a great need to help those patients who have not been successful with their treatment. Together with our clients, we are able to give hope again, in some of those areas. I am thankful to be a part of something bigger than myself.”

It’s not just their company, though. The entire industry is going through rapid growth.

“The gene therapy industry is experiencing phenomenal growth in reaching patients with the diseases that traditional medicine cannot impact,” said Sowemimo. “Aldevron, together with our clients, are giving hope to the people affected by these diseases.”

Aldevron is also taking advantage of being located in Fargo.

Thanks to workforce talent from the universities, building incentives from the city and low cost of living, the company is capitalizing on all that Fargo has to offer.

“Our founder Michael Chambers and his family have very close ties to North Dakota,” said Hebel. “He feels strongly about supporting the region, school and the growth of North Dakota. We’ve said many times to clients that come to visit us from the east and west coast that it’s probably unimaginable that Aldevron could be located anywhere else.

“The way the company was founded and the way the company has been growing, it’s very particular to the values of the area and the innovation and dedication that the staff has shown long before I started working here. I believe that.”

Aldevron's Core Products

Manufacturing And PH.DS

While Fargo does have its advantages, it does come with its challenges, especially when you consider Aldevron’s workforce needs. With there being a massive workforce shortage in North Dakota, this becomes a problem for most businesses, although as the company continues to hire, they are figuring out the best way to reach their next employees.

“We have a really good university system in the region and we have strong relationships with NDSU, MSUM and Concordia that provide a lot of great talent for us,” said Busch. “Not all of our roles require a four-year degree or beyond. We’re actually reaching out to high schools and two-year institutions to get students interested in the opportunities here.”

One of their biggest challenges is the work and industry can be difficult to understand. Busch and his team are trying to demystify the work they’re doing.

“The scientific aspect can be intimidating for some people. They may think they can’t work at that company or in the industry

because you’re talking about working with DNA,” said Busch. “First, we can train people for many of our production roles. Second, we also need professionals in finance, HR, facilities, shipping and receiving and other areas where the scientific content of the job is much less. ”

One of the biggest surprises from our tour was that many of their positions are manufacturing jobs so you don’t need a science background. They have an extensive onboarding

process so people can step in from all sorts of backgrounds. In fact, if you go to their website, they have open positions in client relations, clinical-grade manufacturing, commercial sales and marketing, facilities, marketing and much more.

The growth is evident. At the end of October 2019, they had around 450 employees while in October 2018, they had about 260 employees. Once the expansion is complete, they expect to employ 1,000 people and to reach that growth, Aldevron needs the community’s support.

The more we can get the word out there to people with good technical skills and good knowledge that there’s good jobs available and the more we can support universities, the better,” said Hebel. “We have open houses and job fairs. The more attendance and the more folks can publicize that, the better.”

In such a tough labor market, it’s important that any employer looks at what’s their competitive advantage. That’s easy for Aldevron to point out.

“The opportunities that we have,” said Busch. “And not just from a career perspective. Regardless of the role, our employees know that they are making a difference in the lives of people dealing with debilitating and life-threatening diseases. That means a great deal to our employees.”

The New Building

A model of Aldevron's new building

Modular Construction

Since the industry is changing so rapidly, Aldevron is trying to be as flexible as possible with their new buildings. Hebel walked us through what the planning looked like.

“The current building and the new building is all about flexibility and modularity. We put in completely modular suites – or pods as we call it – and the idea here is that we can change these up anytime. That’s a big component. With building two, it’s all modular so it can be put up and changed quickly. Everything we do inside there is single-use, disposable manufacturing equipment. People are used to seeing a manufacturer like John Deere or Harley Davidson and they’re going to see lots of stainless steel equipment and machines. We don’t have that.”

“We do everything using disposable equipment so we can move rapidly through projects, move from one type of project to another or we can change our minds and make something completely different next year. The building has to support that disposable manufacturing.”

“Those are the big factors that go into planning. The building you see going up, we’re actually planning on only building 60 percent of the inside of the shell so actually leaving a hidden shell in the middle so we can add capacity.”

Quick Facts

  • 14-acre campus headquarters.
  • Once completed, the annual capacity will exceed $1 billion of plasmid DNA, RNA, gene enzymes and other biologics
  • The first two-story building will increase Aldevron’s CMP and CMP Source production up to 10 times its current output.
  • New building will be 189,000 square feet. There will also be 20,000 square-feet of quality control and produce storage, an 89,000 square-foot, two-story administration and client visit center and a 96,000 square-foot research development, technical operations and training center.
  • The entire campus will be connected via skyway.
  • Once complete, the total square footage will be nearly 500,000 square feet and has the potential to employ 1,000 people.
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