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The Physics of Life's Work

Today Jim Hudson is known for his pioneering work in genetics, but his start came working at the family foundry, casting parts and conjuring in a back office physics lab.

Jim Hudson at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology he co-founded.

Jim Hudson at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology he co-founded.

Photo by Johnny Miller, courtesy of HudsonAlpha Institute

Huntsville’s Jim Hudson is a world leader in the field of genetics, but he got his scientific business start when his father encouraged him to enter the foundry business.

A chemistry set he received when he was 10 got him hooked on science, and he went from Huntsville High in 1960 to earn a dual degree in chemistry and physics from the University of Alabama. Graduating into the Vietnam War, he won a Distinguished Flying Cross for piloting an unarmed spotter plane, a Cessna L-19 “Bird Dog,” in support of Air Force and Marine troops. Then he earned graduate degrees in both physics and molecular biology.

Hudson’s career would eventually have the most impact in the high-tech field of genetics and genomics, but it was an invitation from his father, Jim Sr., to join in establishing a family foundry business that began Hudson’s business career.

“My dad had always wanted me to go into business with him,” Hudson says. “While I was in Vietnam, he convinced me to come back. His argument went something like, ‘If you’re a physics professor, you won’t be able to have your own lab, or you’ll be teaching, or you won’t have enough time. But if you come back and join me in the business, you can build your own physics lab as part of the foundry, and do the crazy experiments that you want to do.’”

In 1970, Hudson took his father up on the foundry offer, including the offer to build a little lab at the Huntsville foundry for his “crazy experiments.” While he enjoyed the foundry work, his world, along with the rest of history, was rocked by a mid-1970 discovery that made “DNA” part of common speech. Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen discovered a way to, as Hudson explains it, “cut a piece of DNA and then re-splice it back into a different piece of DNA.”

The HudsonAlpha Institute, a $130 million biotechnology campus, houses research and businesses dedicated to using genetics to improve human life. 

Photo by Johnny Miller, courtesy of HudsonAlpha Institute

That discovery was the start of genetic engineering, and Hudson was more than intrigued by it. “I just got fascinated with it being the physics of life, if you will.” When the Hudsons sold their foundry in the early 1980s, it allowed the younger Hudson to go back to school and study molecular biology and further delve into this sector.

But the stint at the foundry had done more than give Hudson a paycheck and the ability to conduct experiments. “I had fallen in love with the foundry business, or business in general — management, accounting, how to make a profit — all those things that are fundamental to business,” Hudson says.

Now possessing a love for both science and business, Hudson founded Research Genetics in 1987. The new company made synthetic DNA. “Just like I used to make castings in the foundry for anybody who wanted a grey iron or aluminum casting for a motor housing or irrigation pump or something like that, I started making DNA for any scientist who needed a piece of DNA.”

It was the highest of high-tech endeavors, but Hudson compared it to an old-fashioned business. “I used to tell some of my employees that we were just like somebody who makes shoes. We make custom-made shoes. People call us, they tell us exactly what they want, we synthetically make it and send it to them.”

However apt the analogy, it’s doubtful custom shoemakers ever boasted the kind of turnaround time Research Genetics did. “The reason we were so phenomenally successful at it was that prior to that, there was no company that was doing that with a 24-hour turnaround. People were taking weeks to do it. That people could call us up, give us an order for a piece of synthetic DNA, we could make it that day, put it in FedEx that night, and get it to them the next morning was something people loved. It was instant gratification. We quickly dominated the market in the United States for synthetically-made DNA.”

That speedy accuracy allowed Research Genetics to play a major part in the Human Genome Project, the mammoth undertaking to, among other ends, identify the approximately 20,000-25,000 genes in human DNA and determine the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs in human DNA. Hudson’s company was so important to the project that the head of the project came down to Huntsville to thank the company’s workers.

“He made a speech to all the employees, thanking them and congratulating them, and said the Human Genome Project was going to finish two years early and under budget, principally because of Research Genetics,” Hudson says.

Hudson sold Research Genetics to Invitrogen in 2000, but he’s still involved in the tech world. He’s co-founder of HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, a $130 million biotechnology campus that combines research and business. He purchased and rebuilt an old cotton mill in Huntsville and turned it into the Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment Complex. He and his wife, Lynn, recently formed a biodefense company, Concero Scientific. And his plans for the future include turning HudsonAlpha into the world center for genomics.

His life and accomplishments make him sound like a Type A personality with no “Off” button, but Hudson, who describes his management style as “management by walking around,” is more the supportive type. As he explains, “It’s easy to get inspired when you think you’re going to save lives, when you think you have a chance to improve the quality of life for not just one person, but for thousands of people. You get up every morning excited about it.”

Jim Dunn is a freelance writer for Business Alabama.

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