BIO International, the world’s largest biotechnology conference, held this year in Philadelphia, comes to a close tomorrow. By the time the more than 75 countries, 1,800 exhibitors and 16,000 participants pack up their impressive pavilions, New Jersey’s delegation of some 75 participants (from 25 sponsor companies/organizations), led by Choose New Jersey and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, will have made an impressive display and outreach regarding what the Garden State has to offer life science companies around the globe. Adding to this biotech buzz was Gov. Phil Murphy who received the Governor of the Year Award today by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, as he also promoted the state.
It was the job of Jose Lozano, president and CEO of Choose New Jersey, the privately funded 501 (c)(3) economic development marketing arm of the state, to walk the length of the cavernous exhibit hall at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and visit the international booths that are “filled with companies who have their eyes on expansion.”
“I’ll spend time with these companies and ask, ‘Are you looking to expand R&D or build a sales office?’ … ‘What is the next step for you and how can New Jersey provide something for you?’” Lozano told New Jersey Business.
His pitch to these companies is that New Jersey has everything they are looking for. “We are the global gateway to the US. For a foreign company wanting to expand in North America, one of the first places they look at is New York City. When they get sticker shock from looking at NYC, I come in and say that New Jersey has a much better product to sell. If you are looking for a talented high-tech workforce, we have what you are looking for.
“I also say New Jersey moves people and products better than anyone else because of our ports, airports, freight rail lines and mass transportation system. On top of that, we are perfectly situated. To the north of us we have the largest market in the world (the New York City region) and to the south of us, you have the fastest growing market (the Philadelphia region).”
Tim Sullivan, CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, said the state had enormous momentum going into BIO International, especially with Gov. Murphy’s economic development strategy and his emphasis on growing the innovation economy, particularly the life sciences sector.
“We have a lot of good things to talk about, including: the NJ Ignite program (which provides early stage technology and life science companies rent support); and the NJ Innovation Evergreen Fund (a $500 million effort that will raise funds over five years by auctioning off state tax credits and then leveraging partnerships with the state and private venture capital funds to co-invest in New Jersey startups). Sullivan also mentioned existing EDA programs that have been assisting biotech startups over the years, such as the NOL (net operating loss) and the Angel Investor Tax Credit programs.
A new development he mentioned is the rebranding of the EDA’s New Jersey Technology Center in North Brunswick into the New Jersey Bioscience Center. The rebranding is not changing the mission of the center, which has a strong concentration of biotech startups, but it “sends a clearer signal to the marketplace on what this space is and who we are attracting,” Sullivan said.
Walking the exhibit hall at BIO International with its numerous pavilions, Sullivan says the EDA is there to support Choose New Jersey in its quest to attract companies to the Garden State. “New Jersey has a great hand of cards to play,” he says. “If you are picking a place on the map to start a [biotech firm], what is better than picking a location that is right in the middle of the North East Corridor with a great transportation infrastructure and the biggest concentration of talent anywhere in the world?”
He commented that all US states at BIO are in a “war for talent,” so stopping at other booths has to be done carefully. “Sometimes, if they see your name tag and where you are from, they won’t give you all the good answers. Sometimes you have to leverage what you do by doing some appropriate snooping,” he jokes.
While watching what the competition is doing, especially neighboring states, is usually the name of the economic development game, Debbie Hart, president and CEO of BioNJ, the trade organization that represents 400 biotech member companies in the state, comments that New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware were cohosting the conference this year, with the three states having their pavilions next to each other. “We are trying to tell the regional story as well,” Hart explained.
That said, she touts the benefits of locating a biotech firm in New Jersey. Discussing the value of the state’s institutions of higher education that work in partnership with life sciences firms, she says: “We have everything from discovery to development to commercialization to delivery here, including a robust offering in data science and an increased offering in cell and gene therapy.
“We have the [workforce] talent that no other place in the world has. Additionally, companies with a footprint in New Jersey are responsible for nearly 40 percent of all new novel drug approvals in the last two years. No one else in the world can say that,” Hart commented.
Dean Paranicas, president and CEO of the Healthcare Institute of New Jersey (HINJ), discussed the value of having BIO International so close to the Garden State: “The proximity of this event to New Jersey is pivotal because it provides ready access to so many aspects of the life science industry in the state, including the public, private and academic sectors coming together and engaging more people. … When you are that close [to New Jersey] it means a lot.”
Because of BIO International’s proximity, foreign visitors had the opportunity to tour a few New Jersey institutions including Rutgers and Princeton universities in the northern/central part of the state and, to the south, Coriell Institute, Cooper University Health Care, Rowan University and the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, as well as the Rowan South Jersey Technology Park.
In addition to its many institutions, Paranicas touts New Jersey as a “nerve center” of company headquarters with key executive decision makers in the life sciences. “So, your decision makers, your R&D function, your manufacturing and supply chain … it all emanates from New Jersey,” he said.
Numerous New Jersey biopharmaceutical companies had a presence at BIO International. Large companies such as Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer had their own pavilions, while other smaller firms were present at the New Jersey pavilion.
Among them was Parsippany-based Socium Therapeutics, Inc., its named derived from the Latin word socius (“ally”), meaning the company’s product would “ally” with patients’ immune systems to identify and eradicate cancer cells. Socium Therapeutics’ President and CEO Timothy M. Salmon said the company’s lead clinical candidate is for prostate cancer, targeting the tumor antigen PSA (Phase I human studies hopefully will be completed in the next several years).
Salmon said, “For us, [BIO International] is all about meeting investors, partners and service providers. We are a three-person company, so we’re very small. Anybody we meet at this point is helpful. Even if we don’t engage with them, it is always good to get feedback to tailor development programs and learn more about what other players in the industry are doing in our field. That’s really how we use these types of conferences.”
OncoSec Medical Incorporated still has employees in California, but of the 30 to 35 total employees, Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer Sara Bonstein explained that between 10 and 15 employees are now in New Jersey, signifying a geographical expansion.
She cited the state’s labor talent pool and incentives programs as a few factors surrounding the company’s Pennington expansion. She added, “[New Jersey] is obviously a great place to live and have a family; the school districts are wonderful, and you’re able to draw from all of that, and then be able to build a successful business.”
With the company focusing on immunotherapy for several types of cancer, Bonstein spoke about BIO International: “The benefit of having conferences like this is that it brings the whole bio community together, where not one of us is going to have the answer on how to cure cancer, and us collectively being able to come together and partner. [We can] leverage each other’s strengths, talents and expertise. Is what’s going to eventually see what makes a difference in patients’ lives.”
Michele Korfin is chief operating officer of Tyme, Inc., a company focused on using a cancer cell’s own, unique metabolism to disrupt protein synthesis, eventually leading to cell death. Korfin said there are “two-fold reasons why we are here.” She explained, “One is we were honored to be selected by NJEDA as one of its emerging biotechnology companies.
“[The second] reason is the exciting opportunity to meet potential partners as we look to bring our therapy all the way from our preclinical and manufacturing stages through clinical development. There are some exciting potential partners that we are speaking with.”