For bio industry in N.J., a celebration — and a call to change narrative

Leaders, on industry’s biggest night, offer personal stories of success – and importance of sharing them with skeptical and cynical public

Dr. Emer Leahy BioNJ

Like so many of the life sciences leaders at the event, Dr. Emer Leahy leads a company that is making life-changing — and life-saving — discoveries for patients around the world who are suffering from illnesses and conditions for which there often is no cure.

And like so many in an overflow crowd of more than 700 at the 31st annual BioNJ Innovation Celebration on Thursday night in East Brunswick, the mission is personal.

Leahy, upon becoming the new chair of the organization, shared why the work Paramus-based PsychoGenics does — conducting leading-edge research that aims to help those with schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses — is so important to her.

Debbie Hart at BioNJ annual dinner meeting.

She’s seen how it impacted her own family.

Leahy said she was drawn to neuroscience after seeing two of her cousins suffer from schizophrenia and having a mom suffer from bouts of depression so severe that it isolated her from life itself, she said.

It’s the narrative the industry needs to tell more often, she said.

“We need to humanize our industry by sharing powerful patient stories of how treatments have changed their lives,” she said.

It’s a message that has never been more important.

A few hours earlier and a few hundred miles away, leaders of the three of the state’s globally impactful life science companies (Johnson & Johnson, Merck and Bristol Myers Squibb) were being grilled at a U.S. Senate hearing supposedly called to discuss drug pricing but was more accurately assembled to push a narrative so often found in Washington: That life science companies are price gougers, businesses for which profits — patients be damned — are the essence of the business model.

The industry leaders survived the grilling — hardly the first and certainly not the last.

Leahy said the industry needs to address the issue head on.

“I strongly believe in the transformative power of our industry,” she said. “But sadly, there’s a significant divide between the decades of work, the commitment and the risk it takes to bring innovative treatments to patients and the public’s perception of our industry.”


Personal stories — and calls to action — were the order of the night.

Lisa Salberg, who received a prestigious Heart of BioNJ award, became founder and CEO of the Rockaway-based Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association years after being told — at age 12 — that she had a heart condition that could kill her at any moment.

She challenged the company leaders in the audience to add a day — or days — of community service to work agreements of their employees, offering a chance for others in New Jersey to see firsthand the commitment to the community the industry has.

Salberg also challenged everyone in the audience to become an organ donor, noting how it has saved a countless number of lives, including her own.

Dr. Mark Peters.

Dr. Mark Peters, the senior director of patient advocacy at Princeton-based Genmab, was given a Heart of BioNJ award for his work co-founding the Hunterdon County Medication Access Program, a nonprofit that has helped thousands of underserved residents in the area receive more than $25 million worth of free prescriptions and important health counseling for more than two decades.

Peters shared how his journey to helping others began at age 11, when we woke up to learn that his mother had passed away from cancer.

These stories are worth more than the bottom line — and are more impactful than the impressive list of business accomplishments by those in the room.

And they are impressive.

Debbie Hart, the CEO of BioNJ, explained how New Jersey-based companies are connected to more than 50% of all novel drug approvals in the country. An incredible stat.

Gov. Phil Murphy talked about how the Evergreen Innovation Fund he created is helping raise money for startups aiming to find more solutions — and how the HELIX in New Brunswick is just one of the many centers of discovery that the state has to offer the scientific research community.

But, unless the industry better connects itself to the work it does, the narrative too easily will revert back to the money it makes rather than the patients it saves.


William Lewis, the chair and CEO of Bridgewater-based Insmed and the winner of the night’s most prestigious honor, the Dr. Sol J. Barer Award for Vision, Innovation and Leadership, level set the challenge.

BiioNJ’s Dr. Sol J. Barer Award for Vision, Innovation and Leadership was awarded to William Lewis.

“There has never been more skepticism about what we are as an industry and why we do what we do,” he said. “When people are told they have a terrible disease, frustration is the immediate reaction. They don’t want to hear about the complexities of drug development, they want access to a solution. In this setting, few are going to take the time to meet us and get to know our sincere intentions, and what we have to do to bring about those solutions to the world.”

Lewis spoke of the Global Day of Good that Insmed created to help the company change its relationship with the public — encouraging others in the audience to follow the lead and become companies with intention, he said.

“Imagine if this became something all health care companies in New Jersey became known for,” he said. “This small gesture could profoundly impact the communities in which we live and work while highlighting to the world outside of health care — and the genuine empathy we know we all possess for others.”

It’s a narrative that is so desperately needed, he said.

“Remember that very few have stood in the presence of all of you and felt the genuine emotion and empathy from the patient stories we hear, been inspired to redouble their efforts the way we are, because we know that on the other side of those efforts, someone lives a little longer, someone sees a child (in) a play, someone is able to walk again,” he said.

“So, let’s carry our heads a little higher and share who we truly are with the world outside of health care.”


Peters summed up the industry in a way that is never portrayed in Washington, D.C., in the most emotional moment of the night, one in which he challenged the room.

“Each day, I’m reminded of this anonymous quote: ‘Those that have health have hope. And those that have hope, have everything,’” he said.

“We are so blessed in this room to do the work we do each day, to help improve the lives of others. We are in the hope business. Today, the world needs more hope than ever. Isn’t that what life is really about? How are you going to inspire and provide hope when you leave here tonight at home, at work and in your community.”