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Looking for Biotech Innovation: What Exit?

Looking for Biotech Innovation: What Exit?

With its world-class institutions, business-friendly resources and first-rate workforce, New Jersey— America’s original biopharmaceutical heartland—is an unyielding driver of 21st-century biotech innovation

Scientific American Worldview recently set out to identify one state—across our nation’s roadmap of thriving biotechnology centers—where a multitude of factors are converging to generate exceptional biopharma growth and potential. While regions like San Francisco and Boston, with their flowing venture capital dollars funding biotech start-ups from the ground up, certainly piqued our interest, we embarked on a less obvious route and swung onto the New Jersey Turnpike, through territory better known for its tollbooths, shores and smokestacks. As actor, comedian and Jersey native Joe Piscopo might quip, “What exit?” Let’s just say our road trip led us throughout the Garden State’s bustling biotech sector, with its bumper-to-bumper innovation—immunotherapies taking the express lane to market, enzymatic biofuel cells revving up the oxidation process, and independent simulation centers cutting in to better educate healthcare professionals and revolutionize the patient experience.

In the quaint Stage Left Restaurant in New Brunswick, some two-dozen leaders driving New Jersey’s life sciences industry gathered in February to discuss how the nation’s original biopharmaceutical heartland is now particularly ripe for biotechnology ventures. Debbie Hart, president and CEO of BioNJ, a trade group and leading influencer of biotech advancement in the region, kicked off the roundtable conversation by explaining that New Jersey has long been known as the medicine chest of the world, with more than 50% of new drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year coming from companies with a footprint in New Jersey. Jeremy Abbate, publisher of Scientific American Worldview, added that, as a legacy biopharma state, the region has the infrastructure, outsourcing capabilities and sheer brainpower to create unique pathways to biotech success. Several of the industry’s thought leaders—with backgrounds ranging from academia and state policy to small start-ups and major pharma companies—shared their candid thoughts about why they chose to set their professional roots in the Garden State, how they arrived at their current stage and where their company or institution’s future innovation is headed.

What we’ve captured below are some snippets these leaders shared—both during our roundtable talk and in follow-up conversations after—that demonstrate how New Jersey’s ecosystem continues to provide an atmosphere for biotechs big and small that lives up to the state motto—“Liberty and Prosperity.”

Where a Skilled Workforce Shines
“More drugs come from New Jersey than any other place on Earth,” says Bob Ward, CEO of Radius Health, headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts, which is developing an experimental treatment for osteoporosis. “In New Jersey, the pharmaceutical industry itself is going through an evolution, with individuals across the value chain taking their skill sets and experience and applying that to biotech innovation.”

Because Ward was drawn to New Jersey’s dynamic workforce, the firm opened a third office in Parsippany to tap into that talent pool. “Many of the people we were looking to recruit were in New Jersey, so we decided to create a third footprint to enable people to join the company where they already live, which seemed like a more practical way to develop our company base.”

And Radius Health has a new neighbor. The Medicines Company, founded in 1996 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recently built its global headquarters—which includes a leading-edge simulation center to educate healthcare professionals in treating patients in acute- and intensive-care hospitals worldwide—in Parsippany as well. The company’s founder, Clive Meanwell, originally from the United Kingdom, says a solid workforce across all stages of the drug-development process from product development to regulatory approval, manufacturing and marketing and sales, was a main motivator for setting down roots in the Garden State.

Then there’s Lipocine, based in Salt Lake City. With an oral form of testosterone-replacement therapy under review with the FDA, the company had two choices when it came to taking its new drug to market. “We could bring the respective skill set to Utah, or we could go where the talent was and open a second office in that locale,” says Morgan Brown, Lipocine’s chief financial officer. Lipocine chose the latter, expanding its footprint to New Jersey’s Lawrence Township.

Drug discovery firm CEO Christian Kopfli, of Chromocell Corporation, believes that New Jersey “is very undervalued as a place for biotech innovation,” citing its workforce as its most attractive asset. The bottom line, says Robert Hariri, chairman of Celgene Cellular Therapeutics in Warren, is that New Jersey has been “the biopharmaceutical heartland of America for many, many years.” And while some biotech start-ups “go to places where they can employ a workforce at a significant discount to what’s possible here,” he continues, “the established biopharmaceutical companies that can weather the costs are benefiting greatly from being in this state.” Hart adds that the “workforce and space costs are less expensive—and the weather is better—than some leading hubs.”

Where Funding Leads to Fertile Ground
Despite the costs, many budding biotech start-ups—through careful navigation and by tapping into the right streams of funding—do manage to find fertile ground in the Garden State.

Daniel O’Connor, a lifelong New Jerseyan and the CEO of Advaxis, in Princeton, says his company is a great case study of “how good things can happen when everything works together.” Advaxis is committed to discovering, developing and commercializing immunotherapies that teach the immune system to attack cancer tumors.

Good things have certainly happened at Edge Therapeutics, in Berkeley Heights. This clinical-stage biotech firm, which develops hospital-based therapies to improve patient outcomes following brain hemorrhages, has benefited from several state resources throughout its history. CEO Brian Leuthner says the company’s investors were the first to tap into and remain among the largest investors in New Jersey’s Angel Investor Tax Credit program. The company also took advantage of the state’s Technology Business Tax Certificate Transfer program, which allowed it to sell the losses it accumulated while building its pipeline. In addition, Edge Therapeutics spent three and a half years in the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s (NJIT) incubator program, which helped with everything from lab space and business mentoring to access to interns and financial resources.

Where Leading-Edge Technologies Merge with Biotech
The Garden State’s biotechnology industry is also optimistic about the advantages to come from emerging technologies that are poised to reshape the pharmaceutical sector.

For instance, Rutgers University’s US$5 million, two-story, state-of-the-art continuous manufacturing facility—known as the Engineering Research Center for Structured Organic Particulate Systems (C-SOPS)—is currently revolutionizing the pharmaceutical industry. At C-SOPS, chemical engineering researchers and students are developing new nanostructure products and innovative processes to lower manufacturing costs, increase the speed of development, monitor the process from start to finish, and reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing. “I predict a 50% worldwide conversion from batch to continuous manufacturing in the small molecule area within the next 10 to 15 years, with $300 billion worth of products made from continuous manufacturing methods each year,” says Fernando Muzzio, director of C-SOPS.

Muzzio believes that continuous manufacturing’s transition to biotech could be just around the corner. “Continuous manufacturing is like an orchestra where every instrument is playing from the same script, and to make that transition over to biotech would be enormous.” He explains that all of the benefits researchers are currently achieving from the continuous manufacturing of small molecules can also be applied to biomolecules by expanding the template or paradigm.

The New Jersey Turnpike is lined with exits that lead to flourishing centers of innovation like C-SOPS. Cruising past the diners and smokestacks, we quickly discovered that the Garden State’s hidden biotech hotspots are driving the industry toward a brighter future—no stopping or standing allowed.

Illustration by Greg Betza

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