May 21 – Happy Birthday Chet Opalka

opalkaChet Opalka was born in Amsterdam on this date in 1949 and grew up on Mathias Avenue. When it was time for high school, his parents decided to send him to Schenectady’s Bishop Gibbons and from there, he went to Niagara University, where he graduated in 1970 with a BS degree in Chemistry. He accepted a position as a research chemist at Sterling Winthrop Pharmaceutical Laboratories in East Greenbush, where he worked for the next two decades. It was while with Sterling Winthrop that Opalka co-invented the drug Inocur, which is used to treat congestive heart failure.

In 1991, Opalka teamed up with a co-worker at Sterling named Thomas D’Ambra and started a new company called Albany Molecular Research, Inc., (AMRI) that provided contract research and manufacturing services for the pharmaceutical industry. It was the perfect time to form such a business and AMRI grew quickly from a staff of just a few scientists to one with over 300. The company is perhaps best known for discovering the active ingredient in the allergy medication Allegra, which at its peak was generating $50 million a year in royalties for AMRI. By the year 2000, Opalka was ready to retire from his full time role with the firm. By that time he had his name on 27 US patents and had authored several scientific publications. He was also a very wealthy man.

Since retiring from AMRI, Opalka has sat on several boards and become an active angel investor. In 2011 he made lots of local headlines when he came out in support of prolonging New York State’s “millionaire’s tax.” Opalka told the Capital District Business Review at the time that “The average wages of CEO’s, relative to their employees, are outrageously high. It is obscene.” He also donated to the Occupy Wall Street movement that had sprung up back then, citing the need for the people at the top who could afford to help to do so and mentioning the fact that his own blue collar parents had lost their careers when Amsterdam’s carpet industry folded.

 

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