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Growth spurt Commercialization Center for Innovative Technologies is bursting with startups

Kathleen Coviello, director of the Economic Development Authority’s Technology and Life Sciences Division.-(AARON HOUSTON)

The Commercialization Center for Innovative Technologies, run by the Economic Development Authority, is New Jersey’s flagship incubator for startups.

And while it has been the first stop for early-stage companies in the biotech sector for more than a decade, the facility’s figurative “no vacancy” sign only recently has been lit up in blazing neon.

Kathleen Coviello, director of the EDA’s Technology and Life Sciences Division, said the North Brunswick incubator has been consistently at 100 percent occupancy for several years in a row.

“We are constantly being asked about opportunities for new space … and we hate turning people away,” she said.

It rarely happened when she first took on her role at the EDA 11 years ago. It speaks to the industry being at an all-time high in New Jersey, a level of growth that the EDA’s incubator alone – or even paired with a couple other spaces, as is the case today – wouldn’t be sufficient to sustain.

Thankfully, it won’t have to.

“We’re starting to see more interest now in the education and private sector in complimenting the state’s support of the biotech ecosystem,” Coviello said.

Debbie Hart, CEO and president of the biotech industry association BioNJ, said this year will see both Princeton University and Seton Hall-Hackensack Meridian Health medical school establishing incubators with labs for biotech work. Hart said there’s at least one other marquee industry name setting up an incubator later this year, but couldn’t get into the details of that project.

Having a number of new incubation facilities up and running offers the possibility of bucking a trend in local biotech innovation that Hart is less excited about.

“While New Jersey’s industry has grown, much of the growth has come from later stage companies setting up operations here … to take advantage of the good commercial talent,” she said. “It’s a great problem to have. But, frankly, we have not been creating early-stage innovation at the same rate as competitor states, (such as) Massachusetts and California.”

Even in neighboring New York – seen often in the life science world as a partner rather than a rival – academic institutions are spitting out biotech startups at an unprecedented rate.

As Hart has heard it described: New York academic institutions have spun out about 10 companies in the previous 18 months; the same number could’ve been cited for the entire 10-year span before then.

Such a flurry of activity in close proximity to the Garden State – and similar action occurring farther away – landed on local radars.

Product of local innovation

Daniel O’Connor has a palpable excitement about what Advaxis is doing.

His Princeton-based Advaxis is participating in the world’s only company-sponsored phase three trial with advanced stage cervical cancer patients. Cervical cancer, one of the most common cancers in women, most often affects those who have been infected by human papillomavirus.

While some women diagnosed with cervical cancer are considered cancer-free after chemotherapy and radiation, O’Connor said, the disease will be recurrent in a significant number of patients – returning in a form that is often more aggressive and deadly.

Axalimogene filolisbac, the company’s orphan drug, is undergoing evaluations of how well it can prevent or delay such recurrences in a high-risk population. In a previous study, the therapy showed a 12-month overall survival rate of 38 percent.

“That was the highest ever demonstrated in this setting for that population,” O’Connor said.

Anne-Marie Maman, executive director of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council, said Princeton University’s faculty members have taken it upon themselves to boost involvement with the booming industry in the same manner.

“The local ecosystem (for biotech startups) wasn’t as robust as some other academic regions,” she said. “So the university decided to step forward to try and help encourage its growth.”

The university is building Princeton Innovation Center, a fully-equipped lab space for early-stage biotech companies run by faculty, graduate students, alumni or other applicants from the wider community.

“What we’re doing, along with other new incubators, is creating more spaces where investors can look at some high-quality startups,” she said. “We’re hoping this is going to be another great site for that.”

The around 30,000-square-foot facility will operate on a different model from the EDA’s incubator, using a bench system in which entrepreneurs and teams rent out areas in a large lab setting. The Commercialization Center for Innovative Technologies offers dedicated 800-square-foot (or larger) labs and office space for up to five years to starting biotech firms.

Any available lab space is welcome by entrepreneurs, who often don’t have balance sheets robust as required for a space otherwise.

Advaxis certainly didn’t.

This is a company that went through the EDA’s incubator and somewhat grudgingly graduated it after a full five-year stay, still facing a long road of research and little (if any) funding – the point at which many early-stage companies in biotech go by the boards.

It had a method of using a type of bacteria to stimulate cancer-fighting T cells directed against cancer antigens and also to go about preventing tumor growth. Daniel O’Connor, CEO, director and president of Princeton-based company, believed in the company’s research into immunotherapies, and helped transform it into the poster child for incubators that it is today.

“The company had no money; it owed a lot of people a lot of money,” he said. “It was daunting. But we said the technology is there – it deserves an opportunity to be evaluated.”

Getting through the company’s earliest stages was no small feat, but Advaxis is now a public company with three immunotherapy candidates in clinical trials that it believes are promising and much-improved access to capital.

The early stages of research and development will remain a challenge in the sector – as O’Connor said, “The expression, ‘If it was easy, everyone would be doing it,’ probably applies here.”

But if an increased amount of incubators allows more local biotech startups to get over that hump, industry experts expect the sector to grow exponentially.

“This is an ecosystem-driven industry,” Hart said. “It has the potential to build on itself like no other sector.”

Brett Johnson

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