Zwicker on biotech report: Public dollars, leveraged with private dollars, are key to innovation

Andrew Zwicker, who earned his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins and serves as the head of the Science Education Department of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, knows a little bit about funding.

That is why the Democratic Assemblyman from the 16th District said he is optimistic about the direction the state is going.

Zwicker served as vice chair of the state’s Biotechnology Task Force, which released a 44-page report Wednesday morning on how to reinvigorate the state’s life science industry the right way.

The report included a number of specific recommendations, chief among them being the need not only for a more cohesive strategy but also a marked shift in looking to the state for dollars that would have traditionally come from the federal level.

“Congress, for years, has had a lack of understanding of the fact that if you invest public dollars, in a smart way, leveraging it with private dollars, that the return on investment is five-fold, a hundred-fold,” he told ROI-NJ shortly after the report was released. “The Apollo mission, the human genome project — plenty of big cases and studies you can look at, but the federal government has completely given up on strategic R&D investment.

“So, it’s up to the states to try to do that. There is a constant fight over how much money they are going to cut from the NIH budget, from NSF, etc. So, instead of putting that money in, they keep on squeezing it down. And this administration in particular has an all-out attack on science … it’s a constant struggle, because there is a lack of understanding on the return on investment.”

That includes, for example, asking the state to provide incentives for orphan drugs.

BioNJ CEO and President Debbie Hart, the chair of the task force, said this is a big deal.

“The feds cut the orphan job tax credit in half, and creating one in New Jersey would set us apart from other states,” she said. “Also, given the number of orphan drug companies in New Jersey, it would bolster those that are here and, we believe, help to attract additional ones.”

The core underlying theme of the report was a need for greater cohesion in the industry and more attention from the government.

Even though there are existing trade groups and nonprofits in the state that focus on each of the industries and institutions, the task force is pushing to revive a Commission on Science and Technology.

Zwicker said the goal would be to work with the nonprofits and trade groups, as well.

“The (New Jersey) Tech Council and the BioNJ’s are critically important,” he said. “The Tech Council is a great example, because they started their own venture fund. That’s critical. We would work with them and say we have public dollars to invest.”

And, in marketing the state, having all groups on board sends a stronger message — versus the silo advertising to attract business to the state that each group currently does.

“That’s a huge problem,” Zwicker said. “That’s why I put in legislation that would advertise New Jersey and promote New Jersey as an innovation state.

“(Institutions and groups) can promote themselves as much as they can, but you need a holistic message coming from the state. We are this amazing series of research universities, innovation clusters — that has to come from the state.”

The state already has Choose New Jersey and the Economic Development Authority — and leaders of both say they are committed to the innovation economy.

And working with both to promote the same message is also necessary, Zwicker said.

“What if we could leverage the dollars we are going to put in, with the dollars Choose is going to put in, and then it’s a win-win all around,” he said.

“This is the future of New Jersey. We are not going to grow revenue, sufficient amounts, from medical marijuana, sports betting is not going to produce the types of returns we are talking about. We’re in a huge budget fight about what to do about the economy. This is the long-term strategy to grow,” he said.

The report also compared New Jersey to Massachusetts — highlighting the state’s commitment to its life sciences sector and ensuring public-private dollars are invested in the growth.

“They have a strategic plan, and that’s what this report and bringing back the commission’s job is to do, is to create New Jersey’s strategic plan so that we’re not reinventing the wheel,” Zwicker said.

Hart added that Gov. Phil Murphy already has the right idea.

“What we have in New Jersey and what this governor has proposed will add to a foundation of support for the industry,” she said. “In order to get to that next level and to really compete with hubs, such as what has been created in Boston and Cambridge, a comprehensive strategy is required. It is what brought Massachusetts to where it is.

“By leveraging our strengths, we believe that New Jersey can achieve its goal of revitalization and enhancement of the life sciences industry through strengthening of the state’s innovation capacity. It is an opportune time to take these important steps.

“Gov. Murphy’s commitment to growing New Jersey’s innovation ecosystem is noteworthy, and many of the recommendations contained within this report have already been put forward as legislation that is now moving through the Legislature. We believe that a deep understanding of the importance of the life sciences industry to New Jersey already exists and that these recommendations will capitalize on the interest and the opportunity.”

To read the task force recommendations, click here.

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