N.J. life sciences building back better: Massive HELIX, Merck sites aim to be complementary


When the HELIX, a 12-story, 573,400-square-foot building in New Brunswick that is committed to doing translational research in life science, received a $271 million tax credit to literally get the building off the ground in early February, state officials said the massive complex would be a game-changer for the state.

At the time, New Brunswick Development Corp. President Chris Paladino, the master developer, said he hoped the transformative project will be finished by the fourth quarter of 2025. 

Chris Paladino. (File photo)

Less than two weeks later, Onyx Equities announced it was partnering with a New York firm to buy the massive 108-acre Merck campus in Kenilworth — one already filled with 1.4 million square feet of state-of-the-art research facilities.

Its master developer, Onyx co-Managing Partner John Saraceno, said he intends to bring in the best and brightest life science companies at about the same time — or, after a two-year effort to develop some parcels on the site and redevelop some others.


That’s not how Paladino sees it.

The aim of the HELIX, he said, is to build an innovation and research economy in the state. Paladino said the more places this can happen, the better.

“I think it’s extraordinarily complementary,” he said. “And, quite honestly, since the earliest phases of the HELIX project and the New Jersey Innovation Hub, this has been the desire: To have a place that can help create and accelerate the commercialization of research by startups and early-stage companies.

“If there are more places to do that — more places available when a company needs to expand to a 25,000- or a 100,000-square-foot space — that’s a good thing.

“What we’re trying to do is make New Jersey a driver of the country’s innovation economy. So, I think these places, and others like them, are very compatible.”

The Merck campus in Kenilworth. ­— Onyx Equities

Paladino said other areas of the country — areas that have grown their innovation economy the way New Jersey used to — understand this.

“There’s a million and a half square feet in Kendall Square in Cambridge (Massachusetts) that’s under construction today,” he said. “No one is saying that is a bad thing. In fact, the rents keep rising.”

Then, there’s this: Paladino said the state needs space.

“New Jersey has a deep and wide talent pool,” he said. “And, in the end, that’s what this is all about.

“For some reason, many of these New Jersey companies on the early-stage innovation side have moved out of New Jersey recently. This will be catalyst for the next wave to stay.”

Competition is not a concern, Paladino said.

“My biggest fear is that I will outgrow my building before it opens,” he said. “That’s how much interest there has been.”

Saraceno isn’t concerned, either. He said the campus will show that the state still is a leader in the life sciences sector.

John Saraceno. (File photo)

“The life sciences industry is surging, and its rapidly developing technology requires new specialty facilities,” he said. “The Merck campus represents an opportunity to host blue-chip companies that will benefit from proximity to New Jersey and New York’s highly educated workforce.”

Onyx Equities and its partner, Machine Investment Group, will market the site’s state-of-the-art laboratories and support facilities to biotechnology, pharmaceutical and technology companies that value a highly educated life sciences labor pool and proximity to regional infrastructure and thoroughfares, Saraceno said.

“We’re excited to apply Onyx’s unique asset-repositioning platform to attract the next generation of life science and technology leaders,” he said.

Both sites figure to be Class A in every way.

The HELIX, with an estimated $750 million in capital investments, will have three major components:

  • The New Jersey Innovation Hub, which will offer space for innovation and startups;
  • New research laboratories for New Jersey’s translational research effort at Rutgers University;
  • A new medical education facility for the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

The Merck site will have 500,000 square feet of Class A professional office space, 30 acres of developable land, a 25-megawatt cogeneration plant, three full-service cafeterias, a fitness center, auditoriums and conference centers, outdoor amenity areas and more than 3,200 surface and structured parking spaces.

And then, there’s that 1.4 million square feet of state-of-the-art research facilities that have been part of the campus for more than a decade — or since the company began transforming the former Schering-Plough headquarters into biologics research center in 2011.

“The difference here is that what we have was built by Merck,” Saraceno said. “There’s nothing that competes — or is even close to what we have from the standpoint of infrastructure. What’s here is state of the art. It’s Grade A.”