116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Norman Fuller has always been drawn to solving problems - even before he knew what being an engineer meant.
'I took an aptitude test in fifth grade, and the results said I should be an engineer. I was upset because I didn't want to drive a train,” he joked.
Instead, Fuller wanted to learn about the tangible ways science can make the world better.
His fascination with science carried him through high school and college, where he discovered a love of chemical engineering and ultimately earned a master's degree. He worked at General Electric and Motorola before coming to Integrated DNA Technologies 14 years ago as its vice president of platform development.
Based in the UI Research Park in Coralville, the company develops, manufactures and markets nucleic acid products for the life sciences industry, which includes making components for medical tests for viruses like Ebola and Zika.
When the COVID-19 pandemic appeared last year, Integrated DNA Technologies began preparing primers and probes specific to the SARS-CoV-2 DNA. Then the feds came calling - from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration - asking the Coralville company to ramp up production.
Fuller used an analogy to explain what that period early last year was like.
'We already made ice cream, but suddenly, the only thing people wanted was strawberry ice cream,” he said.
Figuring out how to ramp up production - and do it while keeping the company's employees safe - was like a big puzzle Fuller said he felt like he'd been preparing for his entire life.
'COVID was far bigger than anything we'd seen in the past,” he said. 'We purchased more equipment, redeployed our engineering resources and optimized our existing processes to increase our capacity.”
All of that effort paid off.
Integrated DNA Technologies became the first manufacturer qualified to supply the primers and probes needed for COVID-19 tests. Within a month, it scaled up production to 5 million primer and probe kits per week. As of November, the company had shipped kits sufficient to enable more than 52 million COVID-19 tests.
To keep employees safe, shifts were adjusted, and rules were added about who could go into which lab.
That presented some challenges for Fuller, who was accustomed to walking into the lab to help solve any problems his staff encountered.
'We call it going to genba,” he said, referring to a Japanese word that describes the place where things are actually happening.
Like so many others, Fuller had to adjust to video calls and ramp up his communication skills to get work done from a distance.
Working on the components for the COVID-19 test felt different, he said, because the threat was so close to home. His work already had a big impact, but it had never felt quite so personal.
'I'm proud to work for IDT. We were a big part of the pandemic response in the U.S. and globally,” he said.
Today, his team is working on a test that can look for SARS-CoV-2, influenza A and influenza B from a single sample - potentially saving patients and doctors time and effort. It's an example of how much has changed in the biotechnology field in just the past year.
Fuller doesn't expect it to slow down.
'Every year, there's a new technique,” Fuller said. 'The field of biotechnology has a huge future.
'Figuring out how to solve big problems is what makes me want to go to work every day.”