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This story by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 28, 1998. All rights reserved.
Hydrogel Odyssey: From Prague to Princeton
It sounds like a laboratory fairy tale. For Act I, take 100 scientists and keep them behind the Iron Curtain. Put them all to work on an exciting technology devised by an inventor-genius in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Then add capitalist dollars to help bring the products to market. What do you get? The soft contact lens.
Act II: Lift the Iron Curtain and give those scientists their freedom. Taking their intellectual capital with them, most of them end up in Central New Jersey, where they continue to do pioneering work on polymer chemistry.
That's just how it went. In the 1960s, scientists in Prague were laboring on polymer research projects invented by the late Otto Wichterle. The Academy of Sciences was like a scientific playpen, says Vladimir Stoy of S.K.Y. Polymers at Princeton Business Park, "a place to hide from outside reality. It allowed for a pretty nice concentration and a long term focus for some bright people. Scientists like to play, and they had plenty of time to do just that. We had not too much mobility. You couldn't go any higher, and you couldn't legally get outside of Czechoslovakia."
If rich in talent, the country was poor in capital, and so the Communist government welcomed an unusual partnership with a United States-based firm, National Patent. The alliance resulted in a patent for a billion dollar product craved by millions of nearsighted people around the world, and after a legal wrangle NP licensed the soft contact lens to Bausch & Lomb.
Act III: Three of those Czech scientists are still working on polymers, and their companies are located in the Route 1 corridor. These Czechs represent, in fact, a significant amount of companies doing polymer (hydrogel) research in the United States. Says Stoy: "This area between New Brunswick and Princeton, we jokingly call it `Hydrogel Valley.'"
Hydrogels are being used in huge quantities as superabsorbents for diapers, and as ingredients in hair sprays and cosmetics. But these central New Jersey companies are among only a handful that make specialty hydrogels for expensive cosmetics, medical purposes, and biotech devices.
Certainly their relationships are intertwined. Petr Kuzma is at Hydro Med Sciences, with 25 employees on Cedarbrook Drive in Cranbury and New Brunswick. Hydro Med is now part of GP Strategies (formerly National Patent) and is known for under-the-skin drug delivery implants.
Tyndale Plains-Hunter (formerly Princeton Polymer Laboratories) has a five-person operation on Princess Road (U.S. 1, January 7, 1998). It does high slip, high water absorptive polymers designed specifically for medical and cosmetic applications, and it produces a significant amount of coatings for catheters and other medical purposes. Gina Kuzma, who left Czechoslovakia when she was married to Petr Kuzma, is now applications manager here. Murray H. Reich is president.
Vladimir Stoy, who was formerly employed by National Patent, has five employees at both S.K.Y. Polymers and Biomimetics on Crescent Drive in Rocky Hill. Biomimetics is known for unusual body-mimicking materials. Of particular significance is its synthetic spinal nucleus. (U.S. 1, July 8, 1998).
Charles Kliment, an ex-employee of National Patent, Tyndale Plains-Hunter, and S.K.Y. Polymers, has 14 workers on Route 130 in Dayton at Hymedix Inc. in which Stoy has a minority share. Hymedix markets its primary emulsifiers and gelling agents to cosmetics as well as to wound care and controlled release products.
What are hydrogels? A type of plastic -- or polymer -- with the advantages of both liquids and solids. They can function in a gel state but, like liquids, transport large molecules. They can have controlled thicknesses, and they can control distribution through filters and screens.
"Particularly if you put hydrogels in the context of the current price controls -- you can take a drug about to go `off patent' and give it new life as a proprietary generic," says Joe Montemarano, director of industrial liaison for Princeton University's POEM Center. "All the major companies have projects going on in this area but a company with a handful of good scientists can make some real progress and take it to one or more pharmaceutical companies for actual implementation."
"What gives New Jersey the advantage is the proximity of its pharmaceutical and biotech companies that would benefit from the hydrogel format," says Montemarano.
If you watched the Home Shopping Network in the past couple of years, you may have seen the Bioniq line of cosmetic products advertised for its Hypan family of "water-loving polymers." Hypan is a Hymedix trademark for "patented hydrogel system to promote moisture retention."
But Charles Kliment, president of Hymedix Inc., also sells Hypan-brand polymers used in dozens of other products manufactured by about 60 firms in the United States and Europe. So if, for instance, you use moisturizers from the top five cosmetics firms, you are probably using Hymedix products as well.
Medicia Pharmaceutical Inc., formerly of Belle Mead, now a Route 130 neighbor, makes up the formulas and fills the Bioniq bottles. The Bioniq line can now be bought directly from the Hymedix home page (http://www.hymedix.com) but Kliment has now hired a consultant to change direction and try to get the cosmetics products into department stores.
"We claim Hypan polymers give more moisturizing effect than the normal cream," says Kliment. Hypan products are multiblock copolymers that are crosslinked by crystallinity of the hydrophobic blocks; they are not chemically crosslinked. "They form an invisible film on your skin but let your skin breathe. The creams with Hypan in it have a much better feel, esthetically."
Until Hymedix does break into the larger markets the Bioniq cosmetics will not serve as a cash cow. Though the specialized hydrogels are expensive, they are made in very small quantities, and not very much is needed. "When you see the price you say, `O my God,' but the ingredient is two cents per jar. It is the same thing with wound dressings, you are selling 90 percent water," says Kliment.
Of the 14 employees, two do production of polymers and six work in R&D, and Kliment is hiring more. The firm earns $2.5 million annually in gross sales plus licensing and contracts. First Taiwan Security, a venture capital firm, has made a major investment. The firm took a loss last year but expects to make a profit this year.
Kliment was born in Prague, where his father was a banker and his mother was famous for her cookbooks. He was 13 when World War II ended. After graduating from a technical university he worked in the vinyl record manufacturing industry, and in 1960 joined the Czechoslovakian Academy of Sciences, one of 40 such institutes in Communist Czechoslovakia, founded by the fabled Wichterle. "He knew music, history, painting, gardening, whatever you touched, he knew. Besides being a brilliant chemist, he was a very nice person," says Kliment. "My wife, Daniela, used to say he was the last Renaissance man."
"The Institute was a quite pleasant and free environment; he built it from scratch," says Kliment.
He and his wife had two young children when the Russians invaded Prague in 1968. "I had been to the U.S. in 1965 and 1967 for a couple of months each time, first setting up production for Bausch & Lomb and then helping National Patent Development Corporation to set up the lab here in New Brunswick."
By staying at least a year he could get permission to bring his family, so he asked for that invitation. "I knew I didn't want to spend another 20 years with the Russians," he says now. The Kliments left just in time, in May, 1969, and the border was closed on August 1.
After 15 years with National Patent, Kliment worked for its spinoff, Hydron Laboratories, in New Brunswick. In 1984, he did a brief stint with Stoy at S.K.Y. Polymers. (Though Kliment managed to extricate himself in 1969, Stoy had remained at the Academy of Sciences for 10 more years. He was invited to Naples as a visiting professor and managed to bring his family with him in 1979. In the United States, he continued to work with Wichterle, whom he calls an "elder statesman scientist," and to leverage his contacts with his peers in Prague.)
Next, Kliment spent six years at Tyndale Plains-Hunter, founded by Francis Gould in West Amwell. In 1990 he joined Kingston Technologies, founded by four partners including Stoy, and when that firm had an IPO the name changed to Hymedix Inc.
His daughter owns a printing brokerage, Anycolor Inc., in Pennington, and has a daughter of her own. His son, Charles Jr., is an architect who left CUH2A to be a founder of Princeton Internet Group (PInG). He has written seven volumes of history on Czech equipment during World War II. "If anything will be left after me, it will be this and not my chemical career," says Kliment.
Petr Kuzma, 55, is the chief scientist at Hydro Med Sciences, and here the fairy tale comes full circle. Kuzma worked at the Institute for Rubber and Plastic Technology in Zlin, where Wichterle started out and invented Mylar. He earned a master's degree in Slovakia, and managed to leave Czechoslovakia on a tourist's visa, coming to the United States in 1969. He took another bachelor's degree, this time in chemistry, at St. Peter's College in Jersey City, and then did graduate work in polymer chemistry, meanwhile working at National Patent.
Hydro Med manufactures pharmaceutical and veterinary implants based on patented polymer technology and licenses its Hydron polymers for cosmetic use. Kuzma is hard at work on such project as making soft matchstick-like implants, first to treat prostate cancer, later to treat almost anything.
The company is owned by GP Strategies Corporation, formerly National Patent, which made the original polymer science investment to produce the contact lens. Traded on the New York Stock Exchange as GPX, it is a holding company with three business areas: physical science, distribution, and optical plastics. GP Strategies is going through a process of transforming itself from a holding company into an operating company with a focus on training. Its largest subsidiary is General Physics, a training company headquartered in Columbia, Maryland.
"We are exploring ways to realize the value of Hydro Med and will ultimately be spun off with an IPO," says Robert Feinberg, president and CEO of Hydro Med Sciences, which has about $2 million in revenues and employs 25 people.
Earlier this year the 35-year-old firm expanded by adding a Cranbury site to its 783 Jersey Avenue manufacturing location in New Brunswick. Though the new site has lab space, manufacturing still takes place in New Brunswick. "With all due respect, the New Brunswick area is an old line industrial manufacturing area, and we wanted Hydro Med to have something of a better esthetic appeal. We will be presenting our technology to potential strategic partners," says Feinberg.
"What's different with hydrogels is that these plastics can absorb water without dissolving," says Feinberg, "and that they are biocompatible." He thinks Kuzma's implants will soon have a major impact on people's lives: "We are using these polymers to make tiny little implants, the size of a matchstick and hollow, and you can fill them with a variety of drugs, and insert them easily just below the skin. They will deliver drugs for a year or five years to treat a variety of diseases."
Automatic delivery has obvious advantages. "Think in your own mind of people who have chronic diseases who have to self-inject medication, and people who have Alzheimer's or arthritis or psychotic disorders who don't remember to take their medication," says Feinberg.
He chose prostate cancer for the initial trial because it is an ideal use for the implant. The firm is preparing to begin the final pivotal stage of human clinical trials to treat prostate cancer with a possible market date of 2001. Current treatment involves painful monthly or quarterly injections in the stomach with a drug virtually identical to what Hydro Med uses. "The implant we have used in 40 some odd patients treats the disease for four months at a time, uses less of the drug and one-fourth of the physician's procedures," he says.
"Our implant is under the bicep and it takes five minutes. You cannot see it but you can feel it -- it feels like a piece of al dente spaghetti. One suture and it heals right up," says Feinberg. "With the late stage of the implant we are creating an independent identity for Hydro Med." Also underway is an animal study to treat localized tumors for both human and veterinary applications. Other implants are used for veterinary applications, including one being marketed by Merial Ltd., the joint venture of Merck and Rhone-Poulenc, to reduce the labor costs for breeding heifers. It helps time the menstrual cycles so the entire herd will be ready to be artificially inseminated at the same moment. Most of the most production schedule, involving about eight full-time workers, is devoted to the heifer implant.
The FDA-approved Hydron semi-liquid wound dressing sets into a pliable film-like covering that confirms to the contour of the wound and isolates the wound from contamination. It can also work as a topical drug delivery system. In addition, about 10 to 25 percent of the revenues come from products used in laboratory and industrial application: a building coating to protect from graffiti and acid rain, a wetting solution to reduce surface tension of lab glassware, an anti-fog coating, and a soft contact lens solution.
Feinberg's father practices law in a family firm in Union County, and his mother is a legal secretary. He majored in Soviet studies at Cornell, Class of 1984, but when he earned his law degree from New York University he was an intern at National Patent.
"Gerome (Gerry) Feldman and Martin Pollack, the founders of National Patent, were law partners when they stumbled on the soft contact lens idea," says Feinberg. "It is what we now call technology transfer. The place to go in the '60s was Russia and Eastern Europe, where they didn't have capital."
Another "find" was a new kind of surgical staple, developed in Russia. For both the staple and the soft lens, the government was the licenser. "We took an exclusive worldwide license when they had just put the lens on some farmers' eyes," says Feinberg. "They didn't have enough capital to set up both businesses, so they spun off the staple and that business became U.S. Surgical."
Because developing new drug delivery forms does not involve extensive and expensive negotiations with the Food and Drug Administration, drug delivery is one of the fastest growing segments of the pharmaceutical market. "Today it takes 10 years and $300 million to develop a new chemical entity, but drug delivery is a field of platform technologies," says Feinberg, who lives in Manhattan with his wife, an attorney, and their infant son.
The notorious implant that ran into so much difficulty, Norplant, was made of silicon. His firm has two patents, dating from 1993 and 1994, but his material, polymers, has been used for 25 years in the eye and in catheters, "so it is a safe delivery system," says Feinberg.
Hydro Med's major competitor for implants is Alza Corporation, and Feinberg terms it "the 800 pound gorilla in this field." He also cites as competitors Elan, an Irish firm, and RP Scherer, an oral delivery firm recently acquired by Cardinal Health. "All the others -- 30 to 50 smaller drug delivery companies -- are out there trying to become the next Alza," says Feinberg.
He believes he can go Alza one better. Alza's clinical trial for prostate cancer involves an osmotic pump contained in a miniature rod of titanium. "Alza is a billion dollar company, and they may get there first, but if you are looking at two implants, one less than an inch long and very soft (that's mine), versus a titanium rod, nearly three inches long, which of these do you want inserted under your skin?" asks Feinberg rhetorically. "Ours is `pharmaceutically elegant.'"
Hymedix, Hydro Med Sciences, S.K.Y. Polymers/ Biomimetics, and Tyndale Plains-Hunter -- all grapple with serious competition. "Probably 15 companies are trying to play in the hydrogel area for medical devices," says Joseph Ehrhard, vice president of Hydromer, a public company in Branchburg that spun off from Biosearch, also in Branchburg, founded by Manfred Dyke. Hydromer has annual revenues of $2.36 million and dedicates seven people to its manufacturing and quality assurance (http://www.hydromer.com). Both firms are public and are traded on pink sheets.
Another leading competitor, Massachusetts-based GelMed/GelSciences, is developing technologies discovered by MIT's Toyoichi Tanaka. Right here as the Carnegie Center, a firm called Derma Sciences has a wound-management system, based on hydrogels, already on the market. (see page 49).
It would be hard to equal that moment in time when a genius could be supported by more than 100 government-paid scientists and license an invention to foreign investors for millions of dollars. Meanwhile the companies in Hydrogel Village are diligently searching for the next soft contact lens, the "killer-ap" that will take them public or lead them to pots of polymer gold.
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com -- the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.