One of the main drivers in the recovery of the commercial office market over the last year has been location and expansion of biotech companies in central New Jersey.

In fact, out of five biotech clusters in the state, central New Jersey plays host to two — Route 1 between Princeton and North Brunswick, and Route 130 between Hamilton and North Brunswick. The others are Bergen, Morris, and Somerset counties.

Debbie Hart, president of BioNJ, the trade group formed to advance the biotech and biotech-related industries in the state, says that New Jersey is among the leading biotech clusters in both the U.S. and the world.

“New Jersey has all the components that a cluster needs to survive, thrive, and grow. Companies are coming here at rapid rate, and as they arrive it helps our economy,” says Hart, adding that when biotech companies locate in an area it attracts other biotechs. “It helps build the cluster, and as the cluster grows, the cluster grows.”

She points out that when BioNJ was established in the mid-1990s there were only 30 biotechs — not counting large pharmaceutical companies — in the state. That grew to 80 in 1998. “Today there are over 335. The growth is coming from every possible angle. Companies are locating here from other states and other countries.”

One example is Norwegian biotech PhotoCure, whose U.S. arm is based at 202 Carnegie Center (see story on page above). The company decided to locate in the Route 1 corridor over locations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

BioNJ helped played a role in PhotoCure’s decision. According to Hart, officials at the company approached BioNJ about two years ago with an interest in possibly locating in New Jersey.

“We held a meeting where we brought in representatives of the state and PhotoCure representatives and talked to them about all of the assets that New Jersey has to offer,” says Hart. “When they left our offices, I felt we did the best selling job we could have had done.”

Despite that, Hart says she was wasn’t 100 percent confident the company would locate here. “I was convinced they were going to North Carolina. They (PhotoCure officials) talked a lot about North Carolina and the all of the things they liked about it there.” Contributing to that was the fact that PhotoCure CEO Terry Conrad lived in North Carolina.

“Ultimately, I was thrilled that New Jersey was the successful suitor,” says Hart. There are a number of reasons why the company chose to locate in Princeton. “Geography was critical to them. Since they are a Norwegian company, the fact that they could easily get a nonstop flight from this area to Oslo was a critical factor.”

Another big factor was the pool of talent. “We have more commercial talent here than anywhere else in the world,” says Hart. “When companies are looking at a U.S. location, New Jersey is always on that list. Often we find we are the succesful location.”

In a recent report commercial broker Jerry Fennelly, president of NAI Fennelly, addressed the issue of the growth of biotech in central Jersey.

“Princeton continues to be a preferred location for international companies due to its central east coast location, proximity to pharma industry headquarters, and the region’s international recognition,” Fennelly reported. “The major research and development centered on cancer and diabetes continue to produce bio company growth.”

He also pointed out that financial instability internationally makes the region an attractive destination for foreign businesses. Companies have migrated from Japan, Switzerland, and China with small pharmaceutical relocations, he says.

According to BioNJ, there were more than 20 life science companies that committed to relocate to or expand in New Jersey in 2011. In addition to PhotoCure, companies in the Route 1 and Route 130 clusters include BioLeap in Pennington; Celsion Corporation in Lawrenceville; the Novo Nordisk expansion in Princeton; and Oncobiologics in Cranbury.

Hart also points out that existing biotech companies are spinning out other biotechs that are locating here, and universities — such as Rutgers and UMDNJ — are doing the same. Plus, as the big pharmacuetical companies downsize, “folks are looking at setting up their own companies. And that’s a welcome trend.”

She says there’s an old joke that goes, “When there’s layoffs in California you see business plans, but when there’s layoffs in New Jersey you see resumes.”

That’s changing. New companies sprouting up range from consulting, to bringing products to market, to people setting up their own CROs. “People are also starting companies to do research that they may have been involved with in Big Pharma, or some variation thereof,” Hart says.

Ultimately, it’s a big deal when companies like PhotoCure choose to locate in a cluster. For biotech companies, the more the merrier. “We have a reputation as being the medicine chest of the world and the clusters here are growing and thriving. Biotech companies like to be among other like companies,” says Hart.

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