Worthington builds on bioscience niche

Kamesh Sirigireddy
Kamesh Sirigireddy works with DNA samples at Newport Labs in Worthington, Minn. The company makes vaccines for various kinds of livestock.
Photo by Jackson Forderer for MPR

On the edge of town, not far from the many livestock farms near Worthington, the employees of Newport Laboratories work to kill the microscopic bugs that sicken farm animals.

Newport Labs, part of a local industry focused on animal health, has been growing slowly but steadily, its workers isolating viruses and bacteria and developing vaccines to protect animals.

Newport and another biosciences firm nearby, Merck Animal Health, together employ 200 people, a small but growing niche. In the past year, Newport has added 10 employees, said Randy Simonson, chief operating officer, but even so has turned away work.

When a fish vaccine company from Central America sought Newport Laboratories' help in getting into the U.S. market, it declined.

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"We're a livestock company, we don't want to divert to that right now, because we've got a lot of opportunity with livestock," Simonson said. "A company that could be developed across the street could do something like that."

'Across the street' means a new business incubator Worthington officials hope can jump start similar companies in the future.

Lynette Demuth
Lynette Demuth looks through virus samples at Newport Labs on Feb. 27. Virus samples are sent to the lab so that a vaccine can be identified to stop the virus in livestock.
Photo by Jackson Forderer for MPR

So far, the building is mostly empty. But Worthington Regional Economic Development Corporation manager Glen Thuringer said the facility will offer cheap rent, feature a state-of-the-art laboratory and house maybe a half dozen or more startups at a time. He said he's already talking to three potential clients.

Thuringer said having an established company like Newport a football field away from the incubator could help firms on both sides of the street.

"A company could locate here to sell to Newport, and a company could locate here for Newport to sell to them," said Thuringer.

Beyond business transactions, startups could gain from Newport's experience. Newport officials have agreed to help incubator companies with advice and other services.

Elyse Cooper
Elyse Cooper prepares samples of swine influenza for viral sequencing at Newport Labs on Feb. 27. Newport Labs makes vaccines for any kind of livestock and does business internationally.
Photo by Jackson Forderer for MPR

It's an example of how some communities are trying to encourage entrepreneurship by building on existing business niches. And it is something other communities are succeeding at.

"In Alexandria, they have a number of companies that are involved in, automation, robotics, productivity improvement," said Lee Munnich, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He has tracked local economic development efforts for years.

Munnich said the Alexandria companies design new machines for the packaging industry. Companies have banded together with local educational institutions to design worker training programs.

"If I were going to place my bets I guess I would place it on looking at those kinds of homegrown opportunities," said Munnich.

Munnich said there's a lot of competition for the bioscience businesses Worthington is trying to build. He says there's no guarantee of success.

Samples in a DNA laboratory
Kamesh Sirigireddy works with samples in a DNA laboratory at Newport Labs in Worthington, Minn. Newport Labs is trying to attract more bioscience jobs to the area.
Photo by Jackson Forderer for MPR

Thuringer said Worthington's $5 million dollar business incubator is almost ready for business. He hopes it will help foster the kind of cooperative approach apparent in Alexandria. After nearly nine years of planning, fund-raising and construction on the incubator, Thuringer said it's been a slow process.

"We knew it was going to be a long road," he said. "We like where it has positioned us. Being on Interstate 90, being in the heart of the agricultural biosciences. We are very comfortable with this."

Now Thuringer is hoping some promising startup companies also like the plan.