Except for its location within the Busch campus of Rutgers University, Jay A. Tischfield's cell and DNA repository could be mistaken for a business.
The center runs with machine-like efficiency, processing, analyzing and storing biological samples from clients around the world. Shipments arrive like clockwork, twice a day, six days a week, before being scanned into a computer system and whisked through a variety of labs to be processed with machines that, in many cases, were developed in partnership with the repository.
Additionally, the center is financially independent: Of its 120 staffers, only Tischfield is on the state payroll.
But for all its business-like efficiencies, the Rutgers University Cell and DNA Repository isn't a business. It's a nonprofit. And even as Tischfield takes steps to better align RUCDR and the corporate community, he said that designation is important.
"I actually like that because we can do something because it's good — not because it's good for the bottom line, or not because it raises the stock price," said Tischfield, founder, scientific director and CEO. "It gives us a real flexibility."
About two-thirds of RUCDR's work is done for the National Institutes of Health. It also does work for academic investigators and hospitals, as well as pro-bono work for foundations; a small sliver of the center's work is done for industry clients.
"We're less well known to industry than we are to the government and foundations, although we hope that will change now," he said.
This summer, the center rebranded itself RUCDR Infinite Biologics, in concert with the announcement of a new, wide-ranging alliance with Bio-Storage Technologies, an Indiana company specializing in the sample management and storage for clients in industries ranging from life sciences to agriculture.
Under the nonexclusive deal, the partners will market services jointly, offering clients a sort of one-stop shop for biological sample services.
The impetus for the partnership was client demand, BioStorage CEO Greg Swanberg said. Clients are becoming more comfortable outsourcing lab work and sample storage, but they were eager for a way to cut out the cost and risk associated with shipping samples back and forth between contractors. He said partnering with RUCDR allows his firm to offer comprehensive solutions.
"RUCDR already had a reputation out there, already had experience, particularly from a federal and academic perspective," he said. "We felt that we really had an opportunity to help commercialize that with our marketing and our sales (team)."
The move also came at a good time for RUCDR. The center is currently in the midst of a $9.6 million, 10,000-square-foot expansion project, funded by the federal stimulus act. The deal aligns with the university's stated desire to more fully engage the life sciences companies in the region.
Tracye McDaniel, CEO of the business recruitment nonprofit Choose New Jersey, said RUCDR — the largest university-based biorepository in the world — is one of the state's strongest assets in the pharmaceutical sector, and called Tischfield an ambassador for the state, who joins her at industry conferences.
"We would be remiss not to take full advantage of that as we tell the New Jersey story to business leaders from across the U.S. and around the world," McDaniel said.
Still, the 14-year-old center hasn't always had a strong relationship with business. Its employees are highly sought after by industry, but with a strong base in NIH work and no sales force to lure clients, industry clients have been relatively rare.
"I think the biggest barrier to any university working with industry is the cultural clash and the lack of integrated systems," Tischfield said. "But we understand that, and we have dealt with it some in the past — and we're dealing with it more effectively in the future."
Both Tischfield and Swanberg said they had some initial trepidation about bridging the industry/academic divide to form a partnership, but each said those fears were quickly allayed once discussions began in earnest.
Swanberg said some of his clients also gave puzzled looks when told the firm was partnering with a university-based center.
"Interestingly enough, their initial thought jumped right to that — how would the cultures work, how would some of the processes work," he said. But he said those concerns usually fade once he explains that the partnership is built around the same technology and proprietary sample management system.
"We already have our first client acceptance, and we have several more proposals that are on the street," he said.
Any boom in business for RUCDR also is helpful to the university. As a nonprofit, RUCDR's extra revenue is either put back into the repository or sent to the university, helping fund faculty positions, among other line items.
Having built the repository from nothing 14 years ago, Tischfield said he's excited to open a new chapter on an already unique story.
"I like to do something that's never been done before," he said. "RUCDR had never been done before, and this (alliance) had certainly never been done before. Just the concept of this strategic alliance — I don't know anything like it."
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