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Putting the Alpha in Alabama

Jim Hudson preaches educational outreach and economic development at the Hudson Alpha Institute. 

By Kevin Davies

May 19, 2009 | While the spotlight on economic development in biotechnology is firmly on Georgia this May, as Atlanta plays host to BIO, there are exciting happenings just across the border in northern Alabama. According to various magazine surveys, Huntsville, Alabama, is one of the more desirable places to live and find work in these economic tough times. That goes for life scientists too, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Jim Hudson.

For a decade or more, Hudson ran Research Genetics, a supremely successful molecular biology service company in the 1990s that helped spur a golden age of gene discovery, which was eventually acquired by Invitrogen in 2000. Hudson and a close friend, whom he prefers not to name, decided to create “an institute that would embody that spirit of collaboration.” The governor of Alabama, Bob Riley put up $50 million to match the co-founders investment, and the Hudson Alpha Institute was born—the cornerstone of the 150-acre Cummings Research Park Biotech Campus.

The research operation is fairly modest for the time being, with five principal investigators led by former Stanford University genome center director Rick Myers, but Hudson expects the number to double or triple in the coming years.

What makes the Hudson Alpha experiment especially interesting is that it is also a catalyst for economic development and educational outreach. Since the end of 2007, the institute has been a hub for biotechnology entrepreneurism, providing a home for at least a dozen start-up companies. “We have a number of biotech companies in the same building,” Hudson explains. “They all eat at the same place, go to joint seminars, have brain-storming sessions, etc.”

 “Boosting economic development—that’s the mission,” says Hudson, at least when it comes to the genomics part of life sciences in Alabama. “Genomics is a paradigm that’s uncomfortable to a lot of people, because it involves collaboration.” Young investigators are often encouraged to prove they can do independent research, he says, but, “We look for people that understand the value of collaboration. We want people that are entrepreneurial in nature, that want to see their ideas wind up in the clinic, and potentially want to benefit financially from that as well.” Myers, he says, “is not especially entrepreneurial, but he’s not opposed to the idea!”

Many of the start-ups sharing space with the institute got their start when Invitrogen closed the Research Genetics site, prompting many employees to launch their own companies. One of those companies, Open Biosystems, picked up where Research Genetics left off and is now part of Thermo Scientific.

Another former Research Genetics spin-out is Applied Genomics (AGI), which was based on collaboration with Stanford microarray pioneer Pat Brown. AGI designed hundreds of antibodies to complement Brown’s gene expression studies. MammoStrat is a diagnostic test that uses five monoclonal antibody biomarkers and a diagnostic algorithm to stratify breast cancer metastases, similar to Genomic Health’s gene-based test. Expression Genetics (EGN) is enrolling patients for a gene therapy trial in ovarian cancer, based on a novel plasmid transfection reagent.

The third leg of the Hudson Alpha Institute’s mission is educational outreach. “Everyone talks about it; we’re really doing it!” says Hudson. The institute hired Neil Lamb from Emory University, who has developed a genetics course for middle schoolers that is used statewide, with a high school module following suit. A new conference center will handle demand for various adult education courses that are being offered.

A software company called Digital Radiance provides interactive teaching tools to students using video game technology. It was originally developed as another educational tool, but Hudson says a consultant got so excited by its potential that it was spun out as a new company.

This article also appeared in the May-June 2009 issue of Bio-IT World Magazine.
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