New med school campus: Pecora aiming to turn CDI into more than just research institute

Dr. Andrew Pecora, chief innovation officer for Hackensack Meridian Health. – Hackensack Meridian Health

Dr. Andrew Pecora has a vision for the Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation.

“The whole idea here is I want to create what the equivalent of Silicon Valley is in life science here,” he said. “This is not just a research institute. This is a private-public partnership.”

Pecora spoke to ROI-NJ on Wednesday after the ribbon-cutting for the state’s newest medical school, the Hackensack Meridian Health School of Medicine at Seton Hall University.

Pecora, the chief innovation officer for Hackensack Meridian Health, said he wants to turn the campus that runs through both Nutley and Clifton into an economic driver for the area.

CDI, as it is being called, will be an area set aside for clinical research and startup companies.

Pecora said it will be a magnet for the campus.

“We’ve attracted a world-class individual to lead the HMHCDI board of directors,” he said. “We have a person who is known around the world.

“That person is going to attract Nobel Prize winners, captains of industry and Bill Gates-level philanthropy to come here.”

Pecora declined the chance to name the person, saying an announcement is expected in the next several weeks.

Pecora believes CDI will help secure more government funding. But he also said it already is attracting venture capital and private equity firms that can help incubated ideas spin out into companies.

“We already have Wall Street people coming here and (asking) how to get involved,” Pecora said.

Pecora said there already is one research group in the building, with at least 20 others slated to move-in in the near future.

The buildout of the labs and research space is still in the works, which is why they have not moved in yet, Pecora said.

But Pecora said CDI has commitments for a number of clinical research groups affiliated with the health system. They will focus in three areas: regenerative medicine, a myeloma institute, and cancer and infectious diseases, Pecora said.

Robert Garrett, the co-CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health, said this will mean a unique opportunity for the students.

“They will have unprecedented access to research, discovery and innovation and some of the top scientists and researchers in the whole country,” he said.

Pecora said students will get more than just an education in medicine.

Pecora himself will be teaching on a topic he is well versed: entrepreneurship in life sciences.

“When I was in medical school, we didn’t even get an accounting class,” he said. “We have to teach doctors the business of medicine and I’ll take part in that.”

Hackensack Meridian Health already has invested more than $100 million to get the institute started and seeks to raise hundreds of millions in philanthropy — such as the $15 million Celgene Corp. recently gave.

“I don’t want it to be just another research center,” Pecora said. “I want it to be, when a scientist has a great idea, we create a new company, spin it out, create jobs, create industry.

“This is going to be an engine for job creation, for innovation, for entrepreneurship.”

Stakeholders feel combining all aspects will help create a new microeconomy straddling the two towns.

One Hackensack Meridian Health will take the lead on.

Garrett spoke to ROI-NJ about how the health system is shouldering the full financial responsibility of the school — a recent change when Seton Hall backed out of its nearly 50 percent stake.

Despite receiving a one-time grant from the state in the current fiscal year of $15 million to help establish the new medical school, Seton Hall is no longer sharing the costs.

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge), who was credited with seeing the appropriation in last year’s state budget through, told ROI-NJ he doesn’t anticipate any other immediate state funding to be provided to the project, but said it is possible at some point again in the future.

Until then, Garrett said Hackensack Meridian Health is handling it.

“We have that $100 million endowment fund which will be helping on scholarships,” he said. “In addition to that, we also rebalanced the real estate partnership, so some of it gets made up through that.”

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