At BioPartnering event, it’s easy to find cheerleaders for (and critics of) state

New Jersey won informal poll of where attendees would start/move a life science business, but those choosing elsewhere offered reasons why state came up short

One of many gathering and networking spaces.

Dean Petkanas is the CEO of prerevenue Neuropathix, a Doylestown, Pennsylvania-based company, one of 90 that came to BioNJ’s BioPartnering Conference on Tuesday looking to make connections.

And, if he’s looking for another job, he appears to be a prime candidate to be a spokesperson/cheerleader for the life science sector in New Jersey.

“New Jersey is the center and capital of pharmaceutical biotech in the United States,” he said. “It always has been. I know that Silicon Valley and Cambridge have gotten a lot of attention, but, if you’re going anywhere as a startup in the pharmaceutical space, New Jersey’s the state to go to.”

It’s where Neuropathix, a small molecule drug discovery company focused on inflammation, which currently is based in the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center, may end up, he said.

“We’re thinking about it,” he said.  We have some options coming up at the end of this year. And we’re certainly looking just across the river.”

Petkanas’ comments came after taking an informal ROI-NJ survey at the event — when more than two dozen attendees were asked which part of the country was best suited for a life science startup, with Boston, Silicon Valley and the research triangle in North Carolina offered as choices along with New Jersey.

New Jersey was the winner — with nearly 50% of the vote.

And, while that’s certainly good news for the state, the survey showed there still is work to do. Not everyone at the event feels as strongly about the state as Petkanas.

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To be fair, we offered anonymity when taking the survey.

Given the location — and the fact that everyone in attendance was looking to do business in New Jersey — it was difficult to get anyone who criticized the state to go on the record, after the fact.

Offering criticisms, that was the easy part.

One respondent went off the board when it came to location, choosing New York City, saying it offers far more networking opportunities and event gatherings. There also is more access to venture capital, they said.

Another said they like New Jersey — and live in New Jersey — but said the state is not an easy place to get others to relocate to, especially the next generation. An ideal suburban spot, such as Princeton, does not have the same pull as Boston, they said.

Another said the state’s higher ed system — while outstanding individually — did not do enough collectively when it comes to competing for federal grant dollars.

They indicated schools in Boston, from the Research Triangle in the Raleigh-Durham region of North Carolina and California — both Northern and Southern — were more willing to work together, saying New Jersey was still too siloed in its approach.

And, of course, someone lamented the tax structure.

The former founder sold their company for millions — but paid 11% in taxes, something they wouldn’t have had to do in North Carolina or Massachusetts, both of which scored well in the survey.

“There’s no way I would start a second company here,” the person said.

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Debbie Hart, the CEO of BioNJ, was not fazed by the negative comments.

There will always be naysayers, she said.

Hart said the large number picking New Jersey showed the state remains a leader in the sector, a position it always has had. And she said the large number of attendees (more than 650) and the large number of meetings, both formal and informal (easily more than 650) speak to the draw of the state.

Dean Petkanas of Neuropathix, left, with John Coelho of the Economic Development Authority.

Even more, Hart said she is confident the moves Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority are making will pay off for years to come.

In the case of Petkanas and Neuropathix, that may be months away.

That certainly will be the goal for John Coelho, an enterprise medical leader and senior adviser for life sciences at the EDA.

Coelho was working the room when he heard Petkanas talking about a potential move to New Jersey. He quickly jumped into the conversation, talking about the benefits that come with the EDA’s Emerge program while rattling off locations where Neuropathix might find a fit.

Petkansas didn’t need much convincing. He knows the state — both from his time years ago working in New Brunswick — and his commute to the job: He lives in Long Island.

“I’m very familiar with New Jersey from the time I spent working here,” he said. “And I know there’s a big build-out going on in Trenton, so that’s a possibility. And Princeton’s a possibility.”

Neuropathix has just six employees and still is the middle of its research & development efforts. Because it’s prerevenue, taxes are not an issue. Being in a spot to attract Series A investors is.

New Jersey, Petkansas said, could be just the place for that.

“There’s nothing about the New Jersey biotech and pharmaceutical industry that I don’t love,” he said.