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The right niche helping Tris grow as pharma industry consolidates

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    A lab worker does some product testing in Tris' laboratory. The company's sustained-release drugs are expensive to make, but there's great reward to the risks — it expects to reach $100 million in revenues this year.
    A lab worker does some product testing in Tris' laboratory. The company's sustained-release drugs are expensive to make, but there's great reward to the risks — it expects to reach $100 million in revenues this year. - (AARON HOUSTON)

    Ketan Mehta founded Tris Pharma in the basement of his Cranbury home 13 years ago. Now, he's projecting $100 million in revenues this year as his company grows in an industry that's mostly consolidating.

    The key to its success: specialized technology.

    "The vision was always how can we use existing pharmaceutical technologies — rather than creating new molecules or trying to create a new Lipitor — and develop something that truly meets an unmet need," said Mehta, its CEO, who previously was a manager in Pfizer's business development and marketing division.

    Tris develops drugs based on sustained-release technology, or medicines that release a drug slowly in the body over a period of time, such as 12 or 24 hours. The company makes a coating system that ensures the controlled release from special equipment at its headquarters, in the Monmouth Junction section of South Brunswick.

    What's more, the products come in alternative dosages such as liquids, or chewable or orally disintegrating tablets.

    It's been great from a business perspective. Mehta said the niche-focused strategy has helped grow annual revenue by 40 percent or more since 2010. In the last three years, Tris has more than tripled employment and launched a generics division, while expanding its real estate footprint into a Cranbury warehouse. Now, it's setting its sights on the overseas market.

    Time-release drugs are more convenient for the masses, but are particularly of use to patients with difficulty swallowing pills and children. Many pediatric drugs have timeframes of as little as four hours, Mehta said; drugs that last longer lead to calmer students in school, freed from regular visits to the nurse.

    A key example is Quillivant XR, the first once-daily, extended-release liquid drug that treats attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Tris manufactures the drug through a partnership with Pfizer.

    Much of Tris Pharma's pipeline comes in highly specialized liquid products. The Food and Drug Administration in April approved Tris' brand drug Karbinal ER, which treats allergies in children and works on a 12-hour basis. In 2010, the company won approval for the first generic version of cough and cold medicine Tussionex.

    Creating sustained-released medicines in liquid form can take three to five years to develop, and cost tens of millions of dollars. But if done right, it's a lucrative niche, experts said.

    "The pharma companies that are growing are transitioning into new models — and away from the blockbuster approach — focusing on generics, biosimilars, et cetera," said Mike Carrier, a Rutgers University law professor who studies pharmaceuticals at the Camden campus.

    Mahmud Hassan, who studies the pharmaceutical field from Rutgers' business school in Newark, said technological sophistication provides an edge, given the intense competition to produce popular generics.

    "Once you lose a patent, you have 20 companies line up," Hassan said. "But if you have a proprietary technology, you can monopolize a high-revenue market."

    Tris got its start as an R&D company before moving to a Trenton incubator and, in 2003, its current headquarters. It manufactures from a 17-acre property on Route 130 that employs about 320 and is expanding capacity as it develops new brands and expands its generic lineup.

    To bolster operations, the company has added a warehouse in Cranbury, where it plans to move its R&D functions.

    It's a big leap from Mehta's basement.

    "All of Big Pharma is experiencing a dearth of new products, a dearth of new molecules, so they are beginning to look at technology based products after the patent cliff," Mehta said. "Even though we don't have a blockbuster, we're hitting a lot of singles and doubles."

    E-mail to: tomz@njbiz.com
    On Twitter: @biztzanki

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