When the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology opened in Huntsville in 2009, it promised to boost genomic research, economic development and educational outreach.
The institute has delivered on all three counts, bringing together some of the world’s leading thinkers in genomics with innovative entrepreneurs and educators. Together, they are working to improve human health and quality of life by participating in ongoing genetics research and developing products, services and companies that make that research accessible and available to improve people’s lives.
HudsonAlpha’s campus spans 150 acres and now includes three buildings housing 27 growing companies and approximately 300 employees in the companies and the nonprofit research center. While the institute’s success relies on strong research and viable products and services, the most important ingredients are passionate entrepreneurs who have a vision and dedication to see it through. With a number of successful startups under its belt, HudsonAlpha has become a breeding ground for visionaries who often start not just one company but many companies in succession. Here’s a look at two of those prolific business-makers and what keeps them going.
Born and raised in Huntsville, Jim Hudson was the son of an entrepreneur. His father was his partner in Hudson’s first businesses, which were an iron and aluminum foundry and an antenna company. But Hudson’s first love was science, and after selling those businesses in 1981, he returned to school to pursue a master’s degree in molecular biology.
“While I was a scientist first, I was always looking for business opportunities that tied in with my research, ” he says. Eventually, he founded Research Genetics, a Huntsville company that produced arrays of artificial DNA for use in genetics research. As the company grew, Hudson began working toward incubating other biotechnology companies. He would encourage his employees to launch their own businesses and in return for being a co-founder of those companies, he provided office space, supplies and business services at no cost.
When Hudson sold Research Genetics in 2000, it had grown to 260 employees and $28 million in revenue. When the new owner relocated Research Genetics to California in 2002, many of those employees were laid off.
After spending so much time and effort to build a strong community of biotechnology professionals in the Huntsville area, Hudson didn’t want to watch it fall apart. He formed the Partnership for Biotechnology Research to “keep the community together, ” bringing in speakers from all over the world for quarterly meetings.
As a founder of HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Hudson continues to invest in new companies and serve as a mentor and supporter of other companies based on genomics research. “I’m a scientist by nature, but I have a desire to take my education and use it in business, ” Hudson says. “I continue to believe that biotechnology is second only to electronics in its potential to improve life for all of us.”
HudsonAlpha’s unique combination of nonprofit research and commercial businesses makes it an ideal place for biotech entrepreneurs, and past success seems to be building a generation of serial business owners.
“When you experience success and make enough money so that you’re no longer worried about your own financial picture, then you want to start more companies to make a difference in the world, ” Hudson says.
“We believe capitalism is the best way to bring our research to make a difference for the most people. Here, we have a truly dynamic, supportive environment. We meet together every week and share ideas and root for each other.”
Growing up in China, Jian Han was the son of a leading Chinese physician and researcher. His father introduced many new technologies in China surrounding infertility treatments and genetics testing. For instance, he invented
chorionic villus sampling (CVS), a prenatal genetics screening procedure.
Because of his father’s passion, Han decided to come to the United States to study medicine. After his father’s death, while Han was a student at the UAB School of Medicine in Birmingham, he felt driven to launch a company to bring the work of his father’s lifetime to the marketplace.
While still at UAB in 1996, Han launched Genaco, which commercialized the technology his father developed and earned Chinese FDA approval. As the business grew, it drew the attention of Hudson, who owned Research Genetics at the time. “He asked me to come to Huntsville and offered free space, free Internet access and other perks, ” Han says. “You can’t get much better than free.”
Han relocated Genaco to Huntsville and, in 2006, sold the business to Kiagen, a German company. By then, he was hooked on Huntsville and on biotech entrepreneurship. In 2007, Han launched iCubate Inc., a molecular diagnostic company, to market his proprietary technology that allows users to rapidly detect multiple pathogens in one test. Two years later, he launched iRepertoire, which commercializes applications of arm-PCR technology, which Han developed for infectious disease diagnosis and immune repertoire analysis.
“Most people who start several businesses have a passion to solve a problem; they recognize the need in the marketplace and feel driven to do something about it, ” Han says. “For me, it started as a way to finish the story my father started.”
And the Huntsville community and HudsonAlpha have been instrumental in Han’s continued work to build and grow biotechnology-based companies. “Huntsville has a lot of business activity and entrepreneurial spirit, and a nice angel network, ” he says.
Han says it’s almost a tradition in Huntsville to invent a technology, get it recognized by a larger company, and then sell it, satisfying investors and freeing the entrepreneur to move on to the next big thing.
“It’s like raising a pig, ” he says. “Once you grow a company to a certain size, you let it go.”
Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.
text by Nancy Mann Jackson • photo by David Higginbotham