A story worth telling: Why Onyx’s ability to land Kenvue HQ shows N.J.’s life science push is paying off

John Saraceno, the co-founder and co-managing partner of Onyx Equities, said there are a lot of good stories behind why he feels Johnson & Johnson picked his firm’s property, Summit East, as the global headquarters for Kenvue, its soon-to-be billion-dollar spinoff.

And a lot of people to thank.

He starts with his own team at Onyx, which aggressively pursued the company — even though its Summit location wasn’t on Kenvue’s original list of properties to tour, Saraceno said.

He continues on to former Celgene CEO Bob Hugin, who spared no expense at making the 46-acre campus a dream location for a life science company looking to do research & development.

And he adds Gov. Phil Murphy, Choose New Jersey, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority — really anyone who has been touting Murphy’s “innovation economy” since the governor first took office. The frequent mentions are more than just talk, Saraceno said.

“That 100% has made a difference,” he said. “And, when you get outcomes like this, it absolutely proves it.

“J&J could have gone anywhere. We know they looked in New York City. We know they looked in (Pennsylvania). And they picked Summit, New Jersey.

“It’s a testament to what the governor and Choose and the EDA have been doing. I don’t know if you can draw a straight line. But, it’s definitely part of the story.”

John Saraceno.

That’s not only good news for the state, but good news for Onyx, which has made life science a key component of its extensive portfolio.

In February, Onyx purchased the 108-acre former Merck site in Kenilworth. Saraceno said there already has been strong interest there, too.

It appears Jersey — the once-forgotten medicine chest of the world — suddenly is cool again in life science circles.

“I know that we’re in conversations where we weren’t in the past,” Saraceno said. “I know that, when we go to bio conferences now, New Jersey isn’t an afterthought — it is out in front of the conversation.”

Some of that credit goes to the Celgenes, Bristol Myers Squibbs and Mercks of the world, which produced state-of-the-art campuses only to leave them shortly thereafter for a variety of reasons — none of which necessarily reflected poorly on the state.

This Class A inventory solved one of the state’s biggest life science problems, Saraceno said.

“We didn’t have great built-in infrastructure,” he said. “We didn’t have developers speculatively building lab and life sciences space, which you saw in Cambridge (Massachusetts), and you saw in San Francisco. There was a lot of things working against us for a long time.

“It wasn’t all state-related. And it wasn’t a tax-related issue necessarily, either. It was just that we didn’t have the type of physical infrastructure built that was readily available elsewhere.

“Now, we do.”

It’s one of the reasons why Saraceno has no doubt that Onyx’s life science push will pay off.

Here’s another: The New Jersey workforce that always has been here.

“People drive everything,” he said. “And, I think what you’re clearly seeing is that we have the people here.”

And the communities.

Saraceno points to Summit as a quintessential suburban town that resonates with employers because it resonates with employees.

“Summit has the best of both worlds — a suburban community that offers great schools and a vibrant downtown that is walkable, has great restaurants and a very dynamic environment,” he said.

Top schools. Top communities. Top life science space. Is it enough to attract top companies — even with the high taxes that come with it? From what Saraceno has been seeing lately, it is.

It’s a story that needs to be told, he said.

“The governor and Choose and the EDA and everybody that’s championing the state has done a great job of continuing to let life science companies know what we have to offer and why J&J and Kenvue chose to stay here,” he said. “And Merck didn’t leave the state, either, they just consolidated in Rahway, but they’re spending tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, on revitalizing their campus.

“That’s not a bad story for the state of New Jersey to tell. It’s a reason it can continue to sell an innovation economy.”