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For biotech CEO, N.J. location is a must to lead turnaround

BioNJ honoring exec who says home state is welcoming to industry

A few months after leaving his home state of New Jersey to become CEO of a small Texas biotech firm, Paul Thomas sat down with LifeCell Inc.‘s board of directors to have a frank talk.

The company’s regenerative medicine technology was everything Thomas had hoped for, but to reach the technology’s commercial potential, he would need to reinvent the company and realign its staff.

“I said, ‘Look, I can do all that in Texas, or we can put this business in a location where we have the ability to attract the types of folks who can really help us drive that transformation,'” he said.

LifeCell became the first of two companies Thomas would bring to New Jersey, an effort that will be recognized Feb. 2, when BioNJ presents Thomas — now CEO of Warren-based Roka Bioscience Inc. — with the trade group’s top honor, the Sol J. Barer Award, at its annual meeting.

BioNJ President Debbie Hart said Thomas isn’t alone in seeking out New Jersey for its talent pool.

“It’s frankly the reason that we even get a look,” she said. “It’s the reason that we end up on anyone’s list that’s looking to relocate, and a lot of times it’s one of the top three reasons that the decision is made to come here.”

Thomas, who grew up in Ridgewood, had planned to become a research chemist. He studied chemistry in undergraduate and graduate school before changing course and enrolling in an MBA program at Columbia University.

His first job out of school was at Ohmeda Pharmaceuticals Division Inc., which at that time was a relatively small pharma startup within the multinational BOC Group.

“It did have the feel of a startup, but it was with all the resources and structure of a larger company,” Thomas said. “It was sort of the best of both worlds, in my mind. It was a great learning experience.”

Thomas began at Ohmeda as an assistant to the divisional president. Within a decade, he held the divisional president’s job. He left the company in 1998, after Ohmeda was sold to Baxter International Inc.; later that year, he took LifeCell’s top job.

Thomas hadn’t planned to move LifeCell, and while he bought a house in Texas and enrolled his children in school there, he said it quickly became clear Texas lacked the resources to spark the kind of growth he envisioned.

“To really transform LifeCell into the type of company I thought it could be, I needed to get a whole new cadre of experienced scientific and commercial folks, and also had to have the right kind of infrastructure,” he said.

The company considered Boston and North Carolina’s Research Triangle before picking New Jersey.

“I think the reason that we chose New Jersey was not only the availability of talent and so forth,” he said, “but the (Economic Development Authority) was very accommodating and welcoming to life sciences businesses.”

The company took advantage of the EDA’s Business Employment Incentive Program and other training grants, and set up shop in Branchburg in 1998. A decade later, the company had grown from annual sales of about $3 million to more than $200 million, and its work force swelled to about 500. When Kinetic Concepts Inc. purchased LifeCell in 2008, it fetched a $1.8 billion price tag.

Thomas’ next move was to Gen-Probe Inc., a California firm that had just decided to spin off its industrial testing assets.

Thomas took the helm of that spinoff, Roka, and brought in the EDA to secure a BEIP grant to bring its commercial operations and headquarters to Warren, though its research center remains in San Diego.

Thomas said incentives alone don’t win the day, but they can help seal the deal.

“The first screen is, do you have the right talent? And I knew in New Jersey we had the right kind of talent pool here,” he said. “The second screen was, are there programs that encourage the formation of life sciences companies? And the answer is yes.”

Paul J. Schmitt, managing director at the venture capital firm Novitas Capital, is a longtime friend of Thomas’, and helped recruit LifeCell to New Jersey more than a decade ago.

Schmitt said New Jersey hasn’t always done enough to keep life sciences firms here.

“Quite frankly, (Gov. Chris) Christie and his administration are the first to really work aggressively — that’s my view — to keep the pharma industry in New Jersey,” Schmitt said. “There’s no question the tax situations and the problems with government in this state have really chased a lot of business out of state.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Christie is scheduled to be the featured speaker at BioNJ’s annual meeting this week.

For his part, Thomas has set Roka on a steep growth trajectory. The company is developing instruments and other products for use in food safety testing. Since 2009, Roka has raised $105 million in funding and grown to about 100 employees, about a quarter of which are in New Jersey. Thomas expects to hire another 45 employees by the end of the year.

“What really energizes me is developing these products, and even more than that, being able to talk to either customers who have used the product, or in some cases patients,” he said.

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On Twitter: @JaredKaltwasser

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