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How Science Does Creativity

Jim Hudson describes how creativity is built into the DNA of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.

Jim Hudson, at HudonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville.

Jim Hudson, at HudonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville.

Photo courtesy of HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology

For this issue focused on innovation and creativity, our Executive Q&A has gone to scientific innovation central — the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. Jim Hudson is one of the founders of this non-profit, which opened in 2007, after Hudson’s retirement from Research Genetics, the for-profit company he founded in 1987 and sold to Invitrogen Inc., in 2001, for $139.2 million. At Research Genetics, Hudson developed a process for producing artificial DNA for research laboratories at a fraction of the previous cost and in a fraction of the previous time. It hooked up on the fast track with the human genome project.

We asked him about the ways creativity is cultivated among scientists in general and at HudsonAlpha in particular.

How was innovation and creativity built into HudsonAlpha’s design?
We designed this facility, the physical structure, around the idea that people will bump into each other and share each other’s ideas. The innovation resulting from entrepreneurs interacting with academic researchers is the founding principle on which HudsonAlpha is based. The idea of academics interacting with entrepreneurs is built into every element — from the building, to the campus design, to events, to operations. For example, the building is designed to encourage chance encounters. White boards are built into the walls. You are never more than a few steps from a conference room or comfortable chairs. Traffic flow funnels everyone to a single elevator bank and everyone enters and exits the building through the Bistro. 

The building is also designed with seven and eight-foot-wide hallways, so two or three people can walk side-by-side while discussing ideas. Lab and office partitions are less than 50 inches high, to create an open environment where you can see everyone in the room. A central atrium serves as a convenient gathering place. All of the investigators’ offices and most of the entrepreneurs’ offices overlook and even project out into the atrium, allowing a good view of activities and creating a sense of energy. The executive lounge and library are open to everyone and provide great social as well as brainstorming spaces.

Our dedication to education is also designed into the building, with large teaching labs and classrooms, most having at least one glass wall, so classes may be observed while creating a sense of vitality. Our campus is linear, with buildings facing each other and close enough that you can recognize someone across beautiful McMillian Park, the green space running the length of the campus.

In work-a-day terms, how do scientists share ideas creatively?
The most common and productive is through chance encounters encouraged by the building design and though meals shared in the atrium Bistro. We also have weekly seminars with speakers from outside HudsonAlpha, as well as regular presentations by both associate companies and investigators. HudsonAlpha’s investigators share ideas while conducting their research in an academic, non-profit environment alongside young startups that are building biotechnology companies, sometimes based on their own ideas and sometimes based on ideas licensed from HudsonAlpha.

For example, one of our [associate] companies is developing a cancer drug, and another is developing a delivery system for delivering the drug to specific cancer tissues, and a third company is working on a device for screening those drugs on the patients’ own tissues. All of those are separate entities, but they heard about each other and now they are forming a new company.

Another of the companies here, Diatherix, was using a technology that was costing a high license fee. Another company here, Microarrays Inc., developed a different way to do the same thing without those licensing fees, and now they are working together.

Is there a consensus among scientists on how to foster creative collaboration?
I think so. When the subject is discussed, most agree diversity is the best way to achieve creative collaboration. Diversity of backgrounds, philosophies, skill sets and knowledge is seen as essential to a creative collaboration.

What conditions contributed to the success of Research Genetics?
The invention of automated machines that could synthesize DNA, the discovery of a Nobel Prize-winning research method that required synthetic DNA and the overnight delivery service provided by FedEx were all things that came to fruition during my last year at UAH and were the conditions that made it possible to build an Alabama company based on delivering essential, custom-made DNA fragments overnight to any place in the country.

Can you pick out especially key moments of innovation in the company timeline of Research Genetics?
Yes, Larry Turner at Central Bank agreeing to finance the purchase of as many DNA synthesizers as I could keep busy was key. Becoming the sole source supplier of DNA to MIT’s Whitehead Institute and, through that relationship meeting Eric Lander, a man who was to become a major leader in the Human Genome Project and who would help me define Research Genetics’ business model — a company that works with academics, in this case to commercialize the tools that academia develops. At Research Genetics it worked so well that we worked with virtually every university involved in the human genome project, including Rick Myers (now the president and director of the HudsonAlpha Institute) at Stanford University.

Another key was attending the genome meetings at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where I met Jim Watson, the director of the Human Genome Project and where I began a lifelong friendship with Rick Myers. 

Should management deliberately set up plans for fostering innovation?
Absolutely. And they should encourage brainstorming sessions; some about work but most about world problems and how their organization might make a difference.

Invest in people, especially their education and health.  Provide good health coverage to include regular physicals and exercise programs.  Pay for any course on any subject an employee is willing to complete. 

Hold all-hands meetings every week, if possible, and provide food or at least a place for everyone to eat together.  Use these meetings to cultivate a community and educate everyone on why the organization’s work is important. Keep the message short — five minutes is plenty. 

Every organization has a few aspiring entrepreneurs, if only they had support. Encourage them. Provide space and infrastructure with no strings attached.  

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

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