FARGO — Michael Chambers decided that the time has come for him to turn over the day-to-day management of the firm he co-founded 22 years ago when he was freshly graduated from North Dakota State University.
In the years since, Aldevron has grown to become a global leader in the custom production of plasmid DNA, RNA, proteins and antibodies for almost 5,000 biotechnology research clients around the world.
Aldevron is months away from completing a second building on its headquarters campus that will allow the company to expand its production capacity 10-fold. Warehouse capacity will increase by five times under the expansion.
The new building under construction is one of three additions planned for the campus and will grow Aldevron's workforce from 540 to 1,000 when completed in about three years — and will give the company annual capacity exceeding $1 billion of biologics production, according to BioPharma Reporter, a trade publication.
So, with all that going on, Chambers decided it's time to assume the role of executive chairman and hire a new chief executive officer to help steer the company as it charts its growth trajectory.
Starting July 13, Kevin Ballinger will take over as Aldevron's CEO. A mechanical engineer, Ballinger has spent 25 years at Boston Scientific, where he serves as executive vice president and global president of the company's interventional cardiology unit in the Twin Cities.
"This is the only job I've ever had," Chambers said. "There's certainly an emotional attachment to the role, but it's the right thing to do. That's offset by the sheer opportunity and excitement."
Along with his team, Ballinger is credited with building a division with annual revenues of $3 billion and 2,000 employees around the world. Boston Scientific, which makes medical devices, has annual revenues of $10 billion and 30,000 employees worldwide.
Chambers envisions significant growth continuing for Aldevron, with a second campus possible in five or 10 years.
"We're just getting started in what we can become," he said. "There are tremendous opportunities to serve our clients and their patients. We've been doing that for 22 years, but I still feel like we're just getting started."
He added: "My dream is that Aldevron will be to biotechnology what Bobcat is to construction and agriculture," a ubiquitous name in healthcare and a major employer in North Dakota.
Completion of the campus, with an additional 500,000 square feet in building projects running into the hundreds of millions of dollars, is "just a start," Chambers said.
"It's the right time to bring in a good leader like Kevin to scale the company to 1,000 people and way beyond," he said.
In his role as executive chairman, Chambers will focus on strategy, developing new technologies, research and development and working closely with key clients while keeping an eye on the "market and competitive landscape."
Ballinger, a Minneapolis native, said being named Aldevron's CEO is "super inspiring" with the opportunity to help a vast number of patients through the work of the company's clients.
"This industry is so exciting," he said. "I think genetic medicine is the future."
Aldevron, which serves the biotechnology industry with its custom materials production, plays a critical role in that future, Ballinger said.
Fargo-Moorhead has the potential to create a biotechnology equivalent of "Medical Alley" in the northwest Twin Cities, where leading medical device manufacturers have clustered, he said. That will create well-paying career opportunities for the area, he added, which will help attract more firms.
"The talent pool just grows and grows and grows," driven by one or two large organizations, Ballinger said. "That's my vision for Fargo in the biotech world. It's an exciting time for Fargo, North Dakota and Aldevron."
Biotechnology is experiencing a scientific revolution aided by artificial intelligence and computing technology. Continuing advances in cell therapy and gene therapy are fueling rapid growth in the industry, Chambers said.
The early focus on cures for rare diseases is broadening, with research into treatments for a wide spectrum of diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, Chambers said.
"Medicine is changing very fast," with a future of therapies personalized for the patient, he said.
The idea of hiring a new CEO to oversee operations, which had been percolating for some time, came to the fore while Chambers was visiting his father, who was being treated for an illness at the Mayo Clinic for almost two months.
The experience of seeing so many patients and their families caused him to reflect on Aldevron's supporting role in medical research, Chambers wrote in an email to staff announcing Ballinger's hiring.
"I saw Mayo patients who had come from all over the world," he wrote. "Many had just learned their diagnosis and were scared and fearful. Some were parents of young children with rare diseases. It is an honor to know that we had a part in developing treatments that will help some of these patients and their families."
Aldevron has worked with 1,000 gene therapies developed by labs all over the world, Chambers said. As it strives to become more involved in the development of new therapies, the company is preparing to work in partnership with pharmaceutical companies on its Fargo campus, he said.
To accomplish its expansion goals, Aldevron is working with area universities, including NDSU, the University of North Dakota, Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College, to develop the workforce.
Along with North Dakota's agriculture and energy sectors, "We believe medical research and life sciences will be sort of the third leg of that stool," Chambers said.
In order for that to happen, the specialized workforce could end up attracting competitors — something Chambers said he actually welcomes.
"We want to be able to recruit the best people in the world, develop the best people to serve this industry," he said. "This field is new for the whole world. Every step we take is like the first of its kind. We're all learning together."
Capital backing to carry out Aldevron's ambitious growth plans was enabled by a couple of partnerships the company formed with investment firms.
In 2017, TA Associates, a private equity firm, took an ownership stake and became an adviser to help Aldevron expand the size and scope of its operations. Last year, EQT Partners, a private equity firm based in Sweden, acquired a majority stake in Aldevron in a deal a Wall Street investment banker reportedly estimated at $3.4 billion.
In time, Chambers believes Aldevron will expand its operations to other cities in North Dakota.
"This will be much bigger than a Fargo thing in the future," he said. Now, with new leadership in place, "I just think there are resources there to build an industry upon."