Monday, March 11, 2013

Doylestown is home to a bustling biotech center

by Mike Armstrong, Inquirer Columnist

I am no fan of economic- impact studies because, while written by third-party economists, they are usually paid for by organizations who want to tout the good they are doing in a community.

Still, I must admit to being intrigued by the latest impact study on the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center, a nonprofit research group that has become home to many for-profit life-sciences start-ups.

Doylestown won't make many lists of biotech hotbeds. But it's where the center was started in 2006 in a shuttered manufacturing complex. Today, the parking lot bustles at rush hour with industry and academic scientists, students and entrepreneurs, according to Timothy Block, the microbiologist who has overseen the center's growth.

The three buildings on Old Easton Road contain 40 small life-sciences companies, as well as the "cause-driven" Hepatitis B Foundation, begun by Block and his wife, Joan, and another couple in 1991 to find a cure for the liver infection, and the Institute for Hepatitis & Virus Research, started in 2003 as the foundation's research arm.

Block, who had been at Thomas Jefferson University before joining Drexel University College of Medicine in 2004, views the biotech center, established with a $7.9 million state grant, as a place "in between a university environment and a pharmaceutical campus."

The economic-impact report, released Friday, counted 263 jobs directly tied to the Pennsylvania Biotech Center. Of those, 108 work for the nonprofit organizations. The rest include former executives and scientists from the region's Big Pharma and little biotech sector who are working on new ventures.

Those companies include FlowMetric Inc., begun by former Centocor employees, which provides contract research services to the drug industry; OnCore Biopharma Inc., started by former executives of Princeton's Pharmasset Inc., which was acquired by Gilead Sciences Inc. for $11 billion in 2012, and the publicly traded Synergy Pharmaceuticals Inc., which has corporate headquarters in New York City but its lab in Doylestown, where it develops experimental treatments for gastrointestinal diseases.
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