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Stevens has the little lab that could be big part of biotech's future

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Alvin Stern, left, and Peter Tolias at the Center for Healthcare Innovation.
Alvin Stern, left, and Peter Tolias at the Center for Healthcare Innovation. - (PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

While their view of the Manhattan skyline is grand, the size of the biotechnology laboratory at Stevens Institute of Technology is not.

The seven former Hoffmann-La Roche employees who recently opened the facility went from working in labs with more than 2,000 square feet dedicated to molecular biology to just one table for the same function at Stevens in Hoboken.

"Roche was like the Cadillac of laboratories, and this is like the Corolla," said Alvin Stern, head of the biotechnology and drug discovery laboratory.

It is still, however, well worth the ride.

Labs such as this one represent one part of the future of biotechnology in New Jersey. The venture, which is part of the school's Center for Healthcare Innovation, was created to provide biotechs and pharmaceutical companies with fee-for-service research options as well as the ability to conduct active collaborations.

These labs help reverse a big pharma trend of outsourcing drug discovery to offshore centers in China and India — a model somewhat hampered by communication issues.

By working with onshore, independent labs, such as the one at Stevens, there is an exchange of ideas and daily communication between the lab and the pharmaceutical companies.

"Big pharma is good at development and marketing," Stern said. "Innovation is best left to small biotechs and universities."

That already is proving to be true.

The team, which has been operating as independent contractors out of the Stevens' lab since mid-November, already has identified a "hit," or promising result, for one of their current cancer research projects. The biotechnology lab is currently working on 10 different projects.

Debbie Hart, the president and CEO of BioNJ, the leading trade group for the state's biotech industry, said such arrangements are part of the industry's future.

"This is a good example of the continuing growing cooperation of research-based companies and our research-based universities," she said.

Such partnerships can manifest themselves in many ways.

Stern said the group had expected the success of their lab to depend on a big contract from their former employer. Roche, in fact, donated the equipment and supplies after they closed the Nutley facility so that Stern's group could open the lab at Stevens.

But while that big contract never materialized, four other companies have come knocking on the lab's door to take advantage of its early drug discovery services.

Peter Tolias, professor and director of the Stevens Center for Healthcare Innovation, believes this unexpected interest validates the model.

And all of this is a big plus for Stevens.

While this type of academic and enterprise amalgam exists at larger institutions such as Einstein College of Medicine and Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, it's unique to an institution the size of Stevens.

The lab provides its students with opportunities to gain practical experience in biotechnology and drug development.

"Health care drives one-fifth of the GDP in this country … and we want our students to be able to compete in this space," Tolias said.

But it's not just the students who are gaining experience in the lab. The seven former Roche employees are gaining experience as academics and entrepreneurs.

"Last night, we got some disturbing results on a project, and we were all up all night emailing each other and thinking about it," Stern said. "At big pharma, you have the luxury of time. Here, we're counting those billable hours. It's like living on the edge. And, you know what? That's a lot of fun."

Daria Meoli is a New Jersey-based freelancer writer

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