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Fargo company puts dream to reality

by Carrie Carney

Two young scientists had a dream to create a company where they could do the research they were passionate about. It was a dream to cure diseases, create vaccines, and pursue other lifesaving inventions. Their idealism took a slight detour along the way, but now they run a successful company that produces biologicals for customers worldwide. Their reality is partly a dream come true. Their products help other companies in the pursuit of curing and preventing disease, or rapidly identifying disease markers.  

John Ballantyne and Michael Chambers
John Ballantyne, left and Michael Chambers are two young scientists who have turned a dream into a commercial reality. Photo by Carrie Carney

The start of something big
John Ballantyne and Michael Chambers met at North Dakota State University (NDSU) in 1996. Michael was a biotechnology student and John, who is originally from New Zealand, has a doctorate degree in pharmaceutical sciences. Together they found a common interest in what would lead them to create their business, Aldevron, of Fargo, served by Cass County Electric Cooperative.

The two knew they wanted to start a company, they just weren’t quite sure how. They were fresh out of college and neither of them had much background in business. They were two scientists who knew what they wanted for an outcome, but weren’t sure how to get there, or more importantly, how to pay for it.

“Two students just out of college weren’t exactly prime candidates for funding. That was a big struggle,” Chambers said. 

The two met with investors. They tried to be creative to fund the company, but it was ultimately a side job that financed and became a core component of what Aldevron is today.
One of Michael’s mentors, from the Pasteur Institute in France, was an expert in the burgeoning field of DNA vaccines. Through a referral, the pair were asked to produce some plasmid DNA. NDSU had lab space available for their use, so they took on the job and from word-of-mouth advertising, more jobs were sent their way. Many times, they’d work at night because then they had free rein of the lab and equipment. They could start the process and wouldn’t have to stop. “It was the first real incubator situation at NDSU,” Chambers said. “Something that we thought was going to be funding research projects became our business.”

Worldwide business and success
Plasmid DNA is at the center of DNA vaccine research. These small loops of DNA are expanded in safe bacterial hosts and then purified through an exacting process. “The plasmids contain ‘genes of interest’ that, when delivered to a host, carry the code to produce proteins” Ballantyne explained. “If it is for a vaccine, the sequence might encode for a piece of the outer shell that the body would generate an immune response against in the course of a normal infection. In gene therapy, the code may be for an enzyme that would then function properly to augment or supersede the faulty one associated with the condition.” 

Researchers typically request Aldevron’s services because they don’t have the time, expertise or equipment to produce the DNA. “And we believe they need our services because we make the best material that you can get,” Chambers explained. “Researchers are utilizing the material in pre-clinical and clinical projects and we’re excited to be part of supporting research from bench to the clinic.”

The company keeps growing and has expanded. They have protein production services, mostly done in Madison, Wis. They also purchased a company in Frieberg, Germany, that makes highly specialized antibodies for researchers. Worldwide, Aldevron has about 85 employees; about 50 of those are in Fargo.

The protein production and antibody services are similar to what Aldevron does in Fargo with the plasmid DNA in that they too are custom services. Many times, proteins and antibodies are the next stage of material for researchers. “We have built up a continuum of services” Chambers remarked. “The DNA can be used in animal studies to find the best sequences. These sequences can then be used to make proteins that are often more powerful vaccines in different systems at our site in Madison. Ultrahigh quality antibodies that are required for testing the proteins can be made in Germany and these can in turn be used as a form of rapid treatment for those already exposed to viruses.” 

“Biotechnology is an endlessly diverse spectrum of science based around the use of living systems to generate or be modified by molecules that cover a range of complexity,” Ballantyne said. “Companies in our sector are oftentimes at the fulcrum between ideas and reality. Every day, researchers working on a diverse array of concepts contact us. If you had told me 14 years ago that we would be collaborating with, not just manufacturing for, people working on using bacterial toxins to treat a currently untreatable form of cancer or purifying antibodies from duck eggs to counteract massively lethal doses of deadly viruses, I would never have believed you.”

North Dakota work ethic behind world presence
Aldevron began as a small group of 20-somethings. Being a young company, in more ways than one, was a struggle and a good thing as well. “We’ve grown up with the company. It was challenging at the beginning to walk in and be a 24-year-old and be the president of the company. How could we establish credibility? We’ve always been serious. Now, I think we’re there,” Ballantyne said.

“A lot of the trial and error was experienced in the first years, and it still occurs. Last year, we had a client that needed 10,000 plasmids in two months. That is where we test not only our flexibility, but also our ideal of continuous improvement. We question: How can we change our system? It’s a credit to every employee. They all have ideas; they are doing this every day. They bring different experiences to the position. Everyone brings something to the table,” Chambers said.

The company’s website states: “The inspiration of the honeybee has been integral to growing the high-value service business model that Aldevron adheres to.” Chambers grew up near Carrington in a family of beekeepers. His respect for the business and the bees that are “engineers, chemists, mathematicians, nurses, guards and stewards” serves as a guiding principles for the business and its future. Precision, follow-through, compliance and working in harmony are all things the bees do on a day-to-day basis, and so does Aldevron.

Carrie Carney is the communications coordinator for Cass County Electric Cooperative, Fargo.



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