By Meghan Feir Walker
The Red River Valley is becoming known for more than just good soil, agriculture, prairie land and wood chippers. It has also become a major player in the bioscience and biotechnology sector, and the world is taking notice.
With its vast expanses of land, abundant talent, low taxes and its accessibility to state and local lawmakers, the idyllic conditions of the Fargo-Moorhead area help companies thrive. Because of the many opportunities this region provides, many businesses have started in or moved to the prairie, including the globally recognized companies of Aldevron, Agathos Biologics and CorVent Medical.
Forging the way
One of the first biomanufacturing companies to prove to the world that the Fargo-Moorhead region is ripe with opportunity was Aldevron.
Aldevron advances biological research through its custom development and manufacturing services. They specialize in the manufacture of nucleic acid and protein, along with other biologicals for pharmaceutical companies and research institutes, and supplied the linearized plasmid that went into the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
In 1997, North Dakota State University students Michael Chambers and John Ballantyne started producing plasmid, small circular DNA strands that are able to replicate independently. They knew they were good at what they did, noticed a need and jumped on the opportunity to offer their services to other companies.
Their business, which they called Aldevron, officially became a company in 1998, and since its inception, it has steadily grown in magnitude. In its line of work, it is among the top manufacturers of nucleic acids in the world, making it indispensable for researchers, scientists and pharmaceuticals.
“We are all about making meaningful changes worldwide,” said Ellen Shafer, Aldevron’s senior director of communications. “We make DNA, RNA and proteins, and those things are put to work to solve some of the world’s biggest health challenges. We support those that are coming up with cures or potential cures for big diseases like cancer, sickle cell anemia, Duchenne muscular dystrophy and COVID. Our mission is to enable researchers and scientists to do their jobs and fulfill their missions.”
In 2021, Aldevron was sold for $9.6 billion to Danaher, making it the largest acquisition in North Dakota history.
Throughout the evolution of their company, Aldevron has shown the business world why staying in Fargo-Moorhead was to their benefit.
“Being in North Dakota and this region, you get access to decision-makers, which is very helpful. They want to see you succeed, and they try to get rid of roadblocks,” said Shafer. “If you want to start a business or move one here, they understand the value and work together to ensure success. There’s a great workforce, a solid infrastructure and people willing and excited to help you.”
The new frontier
Aldevron’s presence and success in the Fargo-Moorhead region have proven that companies in this field can thrive in the Red River Valley.
Agathos Biologics, a bioscience company founded in 2021, is globally recognized in the new frontier of gene and cell therapy. Agathos was also founded by biotechnology entrepreneurs Michael Chambers, John Ballantyne and James Brown.
The company’s name, “Agathos,” is Greek for “good,” mirroring their goal of providing ethical biotech products and gene therapies.
Mark Voigt, the director of business development and operations at Agathos, said that everything Agathos does “is really based in terms of ethics. Our mission as ‘The good science company’ is to create breakthrough products and services within a strong ethical and moral framework that benefits everyone.”
Agathos is an essential player in gene and cell therapy for this very reason.
“We’re in an amazing time, and biotechnology is really exploding in terms of cell and gene therapy,” said Voigt. “Many biological components used to treat disease, including several vaccines, utilize embryonic stem cells or aborted fetal tissue. We know we can do it better, scientifically and ethically.”
Agathos started in Fargo and plans on remaining there because of how business-friendly it is for companies.
“Companies are looking at getting out of states and places where they’re overly taxed and it’s not conducive to business,” Voigt said. “North Dakota supports business, there’s a ton of talent, and the cost of living and quality of life is amazing. There’s just so much going into the state to cultivate science and technology.”
Relocating to North Dakota
While Aldevron, Agathos and other major companies in the industry have started their businesses in North Dakota, many others are moving their manufacturing facilities and headquarters to the peace garden state to grow their success.
Richard Walsh, the CEO and one of the founders of CorVent Medical, has been in the medical device industry for over 30 years.
At the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic, he and three of his colleagues were approached by the U.S. federal government to address the need for more ventilators, prompting them to create CorVent Medical in March 2020.
Walsh, Johns Hopkins physicist Mark Gelfand, transplant cardiologist Dr. Howard Levin, and engineer and CTO John O’Mahoney came together to design ICU-level ventilators that could be rapidly deployed and used to save lives.
“Our ventilators, unlike any other ventilator in the world, require absolutely no service, no maintenance and no spare parts. If you ever have a problem in five years with the ventilator, we will ship you a new one at no charge,” Walsh said. “Our mission is to develop technologies that are simple to use, yet sophisticated enough to save human life. We continue to iterate the technology and develop new technologies to be used on the battlefield or by civilians.”
Familiar with the economic opportunities of North Dakota, one of Walsh’s friends told him to consider moving his business. That intrigued Walsh and he quickly started talking with Richard Glynn, the executive director of the Bioscience Association of North Dakota (BioND).
Glynn introduced Walsh to various business leaders, organizations and government officials in North Dakota, including the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation (GFMEDC). Soon thereafter, Walsh uprooted and transplanted his entire company to Fargo in January 2022.
“It’s all because of the Bioscience Association of North Dakota. They’ve all become great partners and friends,” Walsh said. “Richard Glynn has been phenomenal. Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring has been very supportive. In fact, he gave us our first small commitment to help us get established here and we continue to grow on that.”
Walsh also met with Commissioner of Commerce Josh Teigen who also encouraged him to move CorVent to Fargo. Senator John Hoeven, Senator Kevin Cramer and Congressman Kelly Armstrong also supported Walsh in his endeavors.
“That really sent the message that medical device companies can be successful in North Dakota,” Walsh said. “I’ve met with all of them personally, multiple times. Where else in the world can you do that? Having them cheer us on gives you a lot of confidence. They encourage you and point out how to be successful in North Dakota. I’ve lived in Florida, Maryland and New York, and I lived all over the world when I was in the military. You don’t see that anywhere else. North Dakota is a very special place.”
Spurring on each other’s success
With the support of the GFMEDC and BioND, these three companies and many others have been able to connect with other businesses, organizations, universities and government programs that have fueled their goals.
Last year, Agathos received a Bioscience Innovation Grant (BIG) from the state of North Dakota for $900,000 which has supported their mission.
“We were able to purchase equipment that is unique to North Dakota,” Voigt said. “We have scientific equipment in our lab that we’re looking at allowing others to use for scientific discovery in the state.”
Earlier this year, the GFMEDC leadership approved a new strategic playbook that establishes a focus on three targeted sector industries including “bioscience and medical device,” “AgTech,” and “autonomous and unmanned systems.”
“Bioscience holds tremendous promise for the greater Fargo-Moorhead region as the world continues to look to innovators to create complex lifesaving technologies and investors continue to inject record levels of venture capital into this space,” said Chief Business Development Officer Ryan Aasheim of the GFMEDC.
The Gross Regional Product (GRP) contributed by the bioscience industry in the Fargo-Moorhead MSA has grown from less than $50 million in 2011 to over $208 million in 2021. The growth of bioscience occupations in the FM metro has grown 40.9 percent in that same period, eclipsing the national growth rate of 23.4 percent.
With a growing critical mass of life science companies, a world-class R1 designated research university and an arsenal of financial and business incentives, the GFMEDC is working aggressively with regional partners to attract opportunities and talent to accelerate and support bioscience in the region.
A major asset for these companies and others has been its close proximity to universities, such as NDSU and UND. Aldevron, Agathos, CorVent, and other bioscience companies in the region regularly use student and staff talent and university resources for new hires and research purposes.
“It’s attractive how advanced our education system is here,” Voigt said. “It’s easy for me to find talent with these collaborations.”
Through each of their successes, they are supporting the region and each other in their growth.
Many other companies in the area are shining a light on Fargo’s bioscience sector as well, including ImmunoPrecise Antibodies, Genovac, and BRaiN.
A rising tide lifts all boats
Alongside these and many other businesses, Shafer, Voigt and Walsh all echoed each other in their desire to partner with and bring in more bioscience companies to the Fargo-Moorhead region.
“We have a lot of resources here in North Dakota that typically aren’t available in places like California, the Twin Cities or Boston where these industries are very strong,” Walsh said. “We encourage other companies to visit because a rising tide floats all boats, and the more companies come here, the more resources there will be. The ability to collaborate expands, allowing us to do our job more quickly and effectively.”
Walsh and his CorVent colleagues have already encouraged other companies to move to North Dakota, directing them to chat with members of BioND, the GFMEDC and the North Dakota Development Fund.
“In the 30-plus years I’ve been in this industry, most of my companies were in California,” Walsh said, “so a lot of people have asked me, ‘What are you doing in North Dakota?’ You have to come and visit and you’ll figure it out pretty quickly. It’s a different world.”