All that is thanks in no small part to strong local support.
“In Middlesex County we take pride in maintaining our infrastructure and in anticipating the needs of the business community,” says Sandy Castor, director of the county’s Office of Business Engagement.
While the pandemic affected every corner of the American life, in Middlesex County some of the changes in the life sciences field, brought about by the need for treatments and vaccines, have actually been for the better, says Jessica Paolini, head of the Life Sciences and Food Innovation division of the county Office of Business Engagement.
Rutgers University’s Institute for Translational Medicine and Science, for example, secured a $29 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to help streamline the clinical trial approval process. What might have taken up to eight weeks before the pandemic can now get done within seven days.
Castor cites a shift from competition to cooperation. “The approach has changed, and people are finding more success in being collaborative,” she says. “The government wants this to continue, so we are working to create and amplify public-private partnerships to solve big challenges.”
Many institutions providing funding are offering incentives for partnerships. “There’s a lot of multi-institutional grant collaboration,” Paolini says, noting that the $29 million grant for Rutgers is in collaboration with Princeton University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Life sciences is poised to continue flourishing in Middlesex County. The top three real estate transactions in the County in the fourth quarter of 2020 were, according to Cushman & Wakefield’s figures, all with life sciences companies within the Princeton Route 1 corridor.
Castor points to two major projects the county helped facilitate as examples of its future regional advantage. The $750 million Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, Jack & Sheryl Morris Cancer Center will open in 2024 as the state’s first freestanding cancer center. That same year Hub New Brunswick will open in downtown New Brunswick. It’s designed to foster research, entrepreneurship, innovation and startup incubation. It will bring together under one roof Princeton University, Rutgers University, Hackensack Meridian Health and RWJBarnabas Health as core partners and initial tenants.
Paolini notes that the industry benefits from cross-disciplinary collaboration with another of the county’s established sectors: food innovation. Companies in Middlesex work on personalized nutrition and the microbiome, flavors and fragrances. As the industry adopts continuous manufacturing and leverages big data and artificial intelligence, it benefits by having access to specialized tech talent, programs and businesses the county has to offer.
“Data analysis is increasingly important in developing new jobs and new therapies in life sciences, so that’s a pivotal intersection,” she explains.
“To continue to call ourselves in New Jersey the medicine chest of the country, with Middlesex County at a key intersection,” Castor says, “we need to be resourceful and create an ecosystem that allows for more innovation to flourish. We want a place where people can think and bounce ideas off of each other and share data. Having the right talent pool will continue our forward progress.”
But it’s not just providing buildings for these companies and institutions—the county knows it also must provide broader infrastructure support, Castor says. One vital project is a new train station in North Brunswick. The Middlesex County Improvement Authority will serve as project manager, which is an unprecedented partnership with NJ Transit and the New Jersey Department of Transportation.
“We want to create more equitable access to jobs,” Castor says. “We’re not only innovative in life sciences but in conducive, sustainable environments as well.”
Indeed, all these life science innovators provide more than just elite jobs for top-flight scientists—the county has plenty of other jobs for people without graduate degrees in health care, hospitals and research.
“There are so many other tasks within a supply chain that need to be completed,” Castor says. “When the industry says, ‘We have a need for specific talent,’ we help find a way to work that into a curriculum or certificate program.”
Castor points to workforce development programs such as SkillUp and to programs being launched in 2022 at Middlesex College in data analytics and potentially biopharma manufacturing as examples that help both Middlesex County residents and the life sciences employers. The county also works in partnership with top health care systems, RWJBarnabas Health and Hackensack Meridian Health. Castor points to a partnership between Hackensack and Middlesex College that includes lab tech certifications.
“I think we do a phenomenal job in our office of facilitating business growth and workforce development opportunities,” Castor says, adding that the county takes a holistic approach, working on everything from transportation to equitable housing stock to the creation of good jobs.
“Life sciences is central to our success here, and it has an impact on our greater community,” she explains, “but it is also part of that larger picture. Everything in Middlesex County, including restaurants and boutiques, arts and culture, feed off of one another.”