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Alabama’s Southern Research breaks ground on biotech center

Southern Research has broken ground on construction of a new biotech center at its headquarters campus in Birmingham. The building, at Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard and Ninth Avenue South on the city’s Southside, will double the organization’s lab space for researching infectious diseases and increase its concentration on developing new treatments for cancer and other serious illnesses.

“We are planting a flag,” said Josh Carpenter, Ph.D., president and CEO of Southern Research, at the May 16 groundbreaking. “Birmingham should be the hub for biotechnology in the Southeast. This project represents a major investment in Birmingham and Jefferson County that will benefit this community and the state of Alabama for generations to come.”

A rendering shows the planned Southern Research biotech center on Birmingham’s Southside. (contributed)

The new biotech center is projected to create 150 new jobs at Southern Research, while doubling the annual economic impact of the institute to $300 million. It is the signature initiative for enhancing research capabilities, creating jobs and generating new investment, and propelling Birmingham and Alabama to the forefront of innovation built around discoveries — particularly those that help advance public health.

“This is going to be another game-changer for Alabama,” said Gov. Kay Ivey, celebrating the $45 million investment in the biotech center she approved after its passage by the Alabama Legislature. It is the first-ever investment by the state in the nonprofit Southern Research, which was founded in 1941.

“We are proud of our investment,” she said. “It’s going to help Alabamians and help change the world.”

In addition to expanding space for research on infectious diseases like COVID-19, the new facility will allow Southern Research to ramp up its efforts to target common diseases that have a profound impact on the well-being of Alabamians and communities. The construction phase alone will create more than 1,100 project-related jobs and generate more than $190 million in economic activity.

The benefits of the center extend beyond its economic impact, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin pointed out. He said its focus on research and treatment of underlying health conditions faced by many in Birmingham indicates Southern Research’s commitment to diversity as part of a growth strategy that will benefit the entire community.

“There can be no growth without creating opportunity for everyone,” Woodfin said. “The vision for investing in public health is much more than just a building. This is the kind of investment and growth that will continue to push us all forward.”

Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens said getting work underway on the center reflects a new normal in intergovernmental relations, a willingness to “work together to make things happen.” Making Birmingham a premier biotech destination, he said, is an outgrowth of that perspective.

“We are being intentional about creating an environment for success,” Stephens said.

A rendering offers an evening view of the planned Southern Research biotech center. (contributed)

Greg Reed, president pro tem of the Alabama Senate, saluted Sens. Jabo Waggoner and Rodger Smitherman for their combined 97 years of public service. For that and their roles in securing legislative approval of funds for the Southern Research project, Waggoner and Smitherman will be honored by the placement of plaques in the new center.

The new biotech center is the first new facility built on the Southern Research campus in more than 30 years. University of Alabama System Chancellor Finis St. John IV took note of that in his remarks at the groundbreaking, saying it reflects the energy that’s building in Birmingham.

“There’s new leadership and new vision at Southern Research,” said St. John, who sits on the institute’s board of directors. “It’s part of a real energy that pervades Birmingham, that can take it to new heights.”

In the past two years, Southern Research has conducted more than $30 million in coronavirus research. That includes collaboration on a COVID-19 vaccine currently in clinical trials. Along with the campus of UAB, Southern Research forms a 40-block area in which $750 million in biomedical research was conducted in 2021. That figure includes more than $300 million from the National Institutes of Health, ranking Birmingham eighth nationally per capita in NIH funding.

Ray Watts, M.D., president of UAB and chair of the Southern Research board of directors, said the new facility will help fulfill his vision of creating a world-class biotech corridor that stretches from the UAB campus to Southern Research and Ascension St. Vincent’s Hospital.

“Between UAB and Southern Research, we are working to ensure that Birmingham and Alabama become the biotech commercialization center of the Southeast,” Watts said. “This new facility will help us incubate new biotech entrepreneurs and attract top talent to this area. Southern Research and its vision for this center are intricately tied to the future success of Birmingham.”

Founded in Birmingham in 1941, Southern Research is a nonprofit scientific research organization that employs 250 scientists and professional staff. It has helped shape modern cancer treatment practices, including developing seven FDA-approved cancer drugs and testing more than half of active chemotherapies in the United States.