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N.J. pharma: Real estate needs reflect changing nature of industry

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Terry Novak is the COO of Pernix Therapeutics Holdings in Morristown.
Terry Novak is the COO of Pernix Therapeutics Holdings in Morristown. - (PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

For Pernix Therapeutic Holdings, it was time to find a new home.

The Houston-based pharmaceutical company had new executives and a new $65 million war chest from investors, paving the way for a growth plan focused on specialty drugs. But that meant moving its headquarters to a state with a labor force that could help it build a new senior management team from the ground up.

“That led us to decide it's got to be New Jersey,” said Terry Novak, the company's chief operating officer. “That's where the pharmaceutical talent pool is.”

It's a glimpse at the new makeup of New Jersey's life sciences industry, a change that's now translating to commercial real estate. With growth now concentrated in smaller specialty firms, biotech groups and mid-tier pharmaceutical companies, experts say space needs have evolved from the sprawling, suburban research campuses of Big Pharma's heyday to a smaller but steady stream of office leasing.

“(A)s those companies vacate the state, they may be taking their products with them, but they've left behind the intellectual capital of folks who have grown within their systems,” said John Buckley, a vice president with the brokerage firm JLL. “And those people continue to contribute — albeit at a smaller-type platform at smaller companies.”

Pernix opened its new 6,400-square-foot headquarters in Morristown last month, four months after installing its new executive team. The lease has given the company the space it needs for about a dozen more front-office positions, Novak said, with room to grow as it acquires new products as well as much-needed access to New York City.

Pernix is not alone.

Last year, life sciences companies accounted for a quarter of all office leases in northern and central New Jersey, totaling 1.6 million square feet, according to Steven Jenco, JLL's director of suburban tri-state research. The trend continued through the first half of 2014, making life sciences the most active of any industry group tracked by the brokerage.

Much of the activity involves firms moving from one town to another — with some even shedding space in the process — but the state also is drawing interest from beyond its borders.

In May, New York-based Actinium Pharmaceuticals opened its first New Jersey office, a 5,200-square-foot space in the Metropark section of Edison. CEO Kaushik Dave said the office could house nearly 20 employees as Actinium expands its product pipeline.

Equally important: having an office here will help Actinium stay competitive for the life sciences industry talent living in the Garden State, Dave said.

And experts say many pharmaceutical firms still see New Jersey as a headquarters location, as Pernix does, even if their manufacturing and research operations are elsewhere. Aside from the workforce, C-suite executives are drawn to the state's proximity to Manhattan's financial markets and its transportation infrastructure.

That's exactly why there are so many “nerve center operations” located in New Jersey, said Dean Paranicas, president and CEO of the HealthCare Institute of New Jersey.

“All of those factors combine to make this a good environment in which to invest, grow and expand,” said Paranicas, whose trade group represents life sciences companies in the state. “Our companies like the proximity to each other — they collaborate, they work together, they draw from a very broad and deep talent pool.”

Brokers and developers can only hope the interest stays high — enough to help transform many of the large pharmaceutical campuses that have been left behind by Big Pharma and are now slated for redevelopment.

Daniel Loughlin, a managing director with JLL, said “there is a fairly decent level of activity” around sites such as the now-vacant Roche campus in Nutley and Clifton and Merck's research and development complex in Summit. He said 100,000- to 200,000-square-foot users — such as the ones now in the market — could occupy full buildings and anchor the sites as redevelopment takes place around them.

It's a model that's unfolding at the former Sanofi U.S. research campus in Bridgewater. Last year, the 1.2 million-square-foot site attracted two established life sciences companies, Amneal Pharmaceuticals and Ashland Specialty Ingredients, to move-in-ready laboratory and office buildings that were vacated by the French drug maker.

“The Sanofi Bridgewater model, I think, is the case study,” said Loughlin, whose firm handles leasing for the site on behalf of its new owners, Advance Realty and CrossHarbor Capital Partners. The owners now are even willing to break up the buildings into smaller units, he said, “which opens the opportunity for a lot of these smaller companies.”

E-mail to: joshb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @joshburdnj

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Joshua Burd

Joshua Burd

Josh Burd covers real estate, economic development and sports and entertainment. Before joining NJBIZ in 2011, he spent four years as a metro reporter in Central Jersey. His email is joshb@njbiz.com and he is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.

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