The skyline of Birmingham’s Southside will undergo dramatic change over the next few years as Southern Research builds its new $65 million Center for Pandemic Resilience.
The name could change, but so far that’s the nametag for the center now rising on the 9th Avenue South site of the former Quinlan Castle.
Overseeing all of this is Josh Carpenter, an Oxford scholar and a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who was named president and CEO of Southern Research in May 2021.
Carpenter grew up in North Alabama, attended UAB and then joined Teach for America, teaching and coaching at Francis Marion High School in Perry County. After graduate school and studies at the University of Oxford in England, he joined UAB as a professor and administrator, moved to be director of Birmingham’s Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity for Birmingham’s Mayor Randall Woodfin, and just last year, to Southern Research.
Southern Research has been a long-time economic engine in Birmingham with 400 full-time employees. It brings in $80 million in annual revenue and has an annual economic impact on the city and state of $150 million.
One of Carpenter’s first moves as CEO was to sell the Southern Research facility in Frederick, Maryland, a move that brought $17.5 million in capital investments to Birmingham, 40 to 50 new jobs with an average salary of $100,000 and $45 million in recurring direct and indirect economic impact. The move also helped clear the way for the new building.
Despite all that, Carpenter says, “The most surprising thing to me about Southern Research is we really do incredible work that no one knows about and part of it is because we actually can’t tell our story.
“For example, a major pharmaceutical company produces an FDA-approved drug to treat COVID-19. We did hundreds of thousands of data points to develop that drug, but we cannot publicize our collaboration because of our research agreement.”
Every day, the Southern Research team works “to translate basic science to market opportunities for products that you and I either ingest in our bodies or through shots in our arms to make us live healthier or to make our nation safer,” he says, but even after 80 years, some of the most exciting collaborations have remained confidential.
Carpenter, whose Ph.D. is in political economy, points out that within a 40-block area in downtown Birmingham, UAB Hospital — now third largest in America — plus Children’s of Alabama and St. Vincent’s treat 3.5 million patients a year, many from Alabama.
Southern Research, a 501-C3 company that has a strong affiliation agreement with UAB, sits in the middle of Birmingham’s medical community, he notes. As a translational research institute, it has to have good relationships with the medical community, the Food and Drug Administration, insurance companies and others whose approval is needed.
Moreover, Southern Research works to use its strengths and relationships to “create economic impact through research,” he says. “We’re not just a research institute that occasionally has economic impact. We are an economic development institution, and a vehicle for that economic development is research and development.”
In addition, he says, “Our job is to be the market-oriented commercial arm of UAB. Several peer institutions in Boston and San Francisco have similarly situated relationships with major research institutions. Our job is to take what is generated in a test tube at UAB and perform all the steps possible to make sure that it’s safe for you and me, and then to build market relationships that will ultimately grow jobs in Birmingham and Alabama.”
At Southern Research, that may mean “in vitro” research, where work is done in a test tube, and it may mean work with animal models. Almost always it means working in tandem with industry, ensuring that the institute’s work not only meets a clinical need but also has a market.
Remdesivir, a drug that shortens recovery time for patients hospitalized with COVID-19, “is a classic example of a relationship where scientists at UAB and Southern Research collaborated to help refine the underlying chemistry of Remdesivir through the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance,” Carpenter says.
As for the new facility, Southern Research is working with local and national architects as well as Brasfield & Gorrie, the general contractor, to develop a plan. The castle has been demolished and the site is now being graded to support a substantial building.
“Our plan is to continue that process, to go to renderings, and we’d love to be in position to start building as early as this summer and our hope would be to be in the building probably by early 2024 or maybe even late 2023,” Carpenter says.
“We are soliciting support from local and state governments — the city of Birmingham, Jefferson County, the state of Alabama,” Carpenter says. “But we are really interested in the American Rescue Plan Act funding. We believe that we are uniquely suited for that funding given the $35 to $40 million that we’ve already performed in COVID-related research.”
Carpenter says his previous role as director of Birmingham’s Department of Innovation Economic Opportunity serves him well in his current position.
“The reason we call that economic opportunity is because we believe fundamentally that talent is distributed equally, but opportunity is not and where we can be in a position to create opportunities for people who don’t otherwise have them, we should,” he says.
Brasfield & Gorrie shares that value and looks for subcontractors who do, too.
“And that’s women, minority and disadvantaged business enterprises. It’s a huge priority for us because it’s a value for Southern Research,” Carpenter says. “But also, the bottom line is this, the greater number of firms that we have that are competitive in the Birmingham area, the better quality of service will be, the more competitive pricing we will have. This is a great opportunity for us to invest in the local ecosystem and we wanted to make sure that we are taking advantage of it.”
Moreover, he hopes Southern Research will “create solutions that are consequential to Alabama’s health.
“We don’t need to look to Boston or to the Bay Area for our pharmaceutical solutions because we have a lot of that potential here in Birmingham and in Alabama. And our hope is that we will become the type of drug discovery institute, with UAB, that will make Alabama proud, and that is what we are asking for in this building.”
Bill Gerdes and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.
This story originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Business Alabama.