Why life sciences must remain crucial part of N.J.’s innovation economy — and how sector can do it

Gov. Phil Murphy has made New Jersey’s innovation economy a cornerstone of his administration. While New Jersey has been a leader in many industries, competition from other regions, changes in market dynamics and the costs of living and business climate in the state have combined to erode New Jersey’s long-held leadership position. In response to the changing economy, New Jersey must focus on supporting small to middle-sized companies as well as the larger corporations. We believe, as does the Murphy administration, that reenergizing the innovation economy will provide both an immediate and long-term jolt to New Jersey’s workforce, job growth and tax base, and we applaud these efforts.

Our sector, life sciences — encompassing pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical devices and related subspecialties — is a major industry in the state, employing over 115,000 people. Long known as “the Medicine Chest of the World,” New Jersey is where innovation gets developed into high-value products such as drugs and diagnostics that directly affect people’s lives. In fact, about one-half of all drugs approved in recent years by the FDA have ties to our cluster. Further, early-stage companies and startups are where much of the hard work of creating healthcare products takes place. Government, policy and investment efforts aimed at promoting economic and entrepreneurial dynamism are critically important to ensure that New Jersey remains a leader in life sciences.

Entrepreneurship is part and parcel to any successful innovation economy. For New Jersey, life science startups are a natural extension of the legacy pharmaceutical industry in the state. Boasting one of the most highly educated workforces in the world and an ecosystem comprising the spectrum of components required for the innovation economy to reach new heights, New Jersey is experiencing one of the most exciting times in recent memory.

At ILSE, the Institute for Life Science Entrepreneurship at Kean University, we have been developing tools and resources for policymakers, legislators, academic and industry leaders, and all stakeholders to create a shared understanding of New Jersey’s assets. We expect these efforts to help propel the life sciences sector to new heights and to generate more opportunity for startups to take root and thrive in the state. Ultimately, it means more jobs and economic growth.

Through our series of white papers, we have identified several areas crucial for continued growth of life sciences through startups. In our most recent paper, “Profiles in Innovation: New Jersey Startups Driving Life Sciences,” we highlight three key ingredients for life sciences to grow as envisioned: entrepreneurs, technology and risk capital.

Entrepreneurs are the key driver of startups and New Jersey has a long track record of serial entrepreneurs (as chronicled by BioNJ in pieces published in 2015 on entrepreneurship). Many successful early-stage companies were started by local entrepreneurs and are now leaders in their industries (e.g., Amicus, Celgene, Chromocell and PTC Therapeutics, to name a few).

Technology is at the core of a startup and can be homegrown from the companies themselves or from the academic centers throughout New Jersey or accessed from outside our state. Technology is truly borderless.

The last ingredient, access to risk capital, has been a specific challenge to startups and the innovation economy in New Jersey. We are thrilled to see action by the Murphy administration to develop creative financing and capital strategies aimed at providing the financial lifeblood to the expensive and time-consuming business of starting new companies and getting products to market.

In “Profiles,” we also analyzed a cohort of early-stage companies and found that the startups span a broad range of scientific and technical disciplines, underscoring the broad base of skill and expertise in the state to create a robust life science economy. Many of the companies are developing therapeutics, but areas such as research tools, devices, novel reformulations and delivery approaches are also well-represented.

We released our previous white paper, “Recent Development in Innovation Space in New Jersey,” last summer and chronicled investments in innovation space — the laboratories and specialized facilities for life science research and development — showcasing life science centers affiliated with Celgene, Princeton, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and others. These centers are critical components to the ecosystem and provide appropriate and cost-effective physical space for the often-unique chemistry and biology work to occur. Quite simply, life science startups cannot begin in an entrepreneur’s garage or basement — they must start in a specialized facility.

An innovation economy is dependent on many factors, and New Jersey has most of what we need. We are encouraged by the reinstatement of the Commission on Science, Innovation and Technology, by the EDA’s innovation grants (ILSE received an award) and by the renewed vigor by policymakers to address the gaps and support the strengths in New Jersey’s innovation economy. Continued investment in specialized facilities such as the ILSE center will better position New Jersey to prevent the drain of talent and technology to other clusters, to support and incentivize entrepreneurs to start companies here, and to attract companies from across the globe.

Thomas Richardson is president of the Institute for Life Science Entrepreneurship, an independent, nonprofit research institute and business accelerator and innovation center based at Kean University in Union. Keith Bostian is founder and CEO of the Institute for Life Science Entrepreneurship and dean of the Kean University New Jersey Center for Science, Technology and Mathematics.