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When I told you Research had left NJ, I wasn’t making it up


Hoffman-LaRoche Nutley, NJ- recently shuttered.

NPR ran a recent piece on the problem of ghost towns being left in the wake of the great pharma mergers and layoffs of the last 10 years.

The facility I worked at in Bridgewater, NJ closed in 2011.  I’m not sure they were able to find renters but the MBAs seemed to have a habit of overestimating what new tenants for labs space would be willing (or able) to pay.  The lab buildings I worked in were beautiful with lots of natural light but they were never full. The facility I worked at previously in Monmouth Junction, NJ was also abandoned for awhile but I had heard that there were some plans to lease it.  Or bulldoze it.  I can’t remember which.  I stand corrected.  Google maps says the site is “closed”.  That building was smaller and more contained.  It would have been perfect for a small biotech company on the rise.  It had a state of the art animal breeding facility and room for about 400 people. More than that makes it feel too cozy.

But as I wrote back in 2011, it is difficult to get funding for a startup.  The vulture capitalists like to see most of the work done before they commit their money.  Then there is the problem of finding money for equipment (this is cheaper due to the big pharmas auctioning off all their stuff), subscriptions to journals, buying expertise for robotic HTS assays, structural

The place where I spent the best years of my life

biology, specialized analytical chemistry and ADME analysis, and every other thing that a small biotech doesn’t have in its own arsenal.  A regular Joe researcher funding his own research will probably lose his house before the year is out.  So, he and his colleagues don’t have a whole lot of money to spend on lab space, which despite its abundance, is going to be expensive.

In the meantime, Big Pharma is counting on graduate students living on subsistence wages to pick up the slack on what are now reduced government grants.  It was hard enough to be a graduate student in Chemistry before the sequester.  Now, the money is much harder to come by.  For a person who may not get a decent paying job until he or she is almost 30, the prospects are bleak.

You can see Paul Krugman from here!

You can see Paul Krugman from here!

Funny how Paul Krugman doesn’t talk about this.  He’s living in the heart of what was Big Pharma territory and the desolation is hard to ignore.

Some of the lame excuses that Big Pharma gives for pulling out of NJ is that it’s too far from the City and the kids nowadays want to be right in the middle of some hot urban action, complete with expensive tiny apartments that they will have to share with roommates until they retire.  Also, Big Pharma has relocated to the coasts to be close to Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Scripps.  That’s so they can share ideas in the areas where genomics and molecular biology are king.  But this is utter bullshit.  For one thing, if you are working in Cambridge, MA or San Francisco, you are precluded from talking about your work with anyone.  There’s no sharing going on in the spirit of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.  It’s all proprietary and very hush, hush.  Your work won’t be published until the lawyers have taken out anything that’s remotely patentable.  It could be years before you can share your big breakthrough.

Plus, there is this new fangled device called the internet.  If I wanted to, I could use an online tool to order up a synthetic gene from California from the comfort of my backyard wisteria covered swing in Pittsburgh.  I can access thousands of journal articles, provided I had $33/electronic copy and could get over my impulse to strangle the ACS and Elsevier every time I had to do it.  I could attend meetings and conferences.  My work does not depend on my location.

And here’s one more reason why pulling out of NJ to go to Boston doesn’t make sense.  It’s fricking expensive.  If the MBAs were trying to save money, which is what they always claim is the reason for shuttering labs, why the hell would they relocate to some of the most expensive real estate in America??  Why not go back to the midwest where the mothballed labs are still cheap?  That’s where most of research was before the big mega mergers in the 90s brought everyone to the Northeast.  Cinncinnati, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor all had thriving research communities before the business people decided to manage things.  Or even Pittsburgh.  This place is hopping lately, it’s urban, housing is cheap and there’s plenty of mass transit.

And this is where I think we come to the crux of the matter.  The relocation is about what the business people want.  They don’t want to be stuck in dowdy, suburban NJ with the high property taxes and they can’t think past the rust belt image of the midwest.  It’s not glamorous enough for the people who consider themselves the culture of smartness.  Smartness demands that it hang around other smart people.  Maybe if the business types rub shoulders with the supersmart MIT researchers, they won’t feel like they sold out their biology degrees to become finance wizards?  Projection of sorts?  I can only guess.

It’s also easier to jettison your workforce if you claim you HAVE to move to stay competitive.  Yep, just cut those hundreds of thousands of experienced STEM workers loose when they are in middle age and have family responsibilities.  Leave them stranded in NJ while their property values sink and they are stuck peddling themselves as consultants from one poverty stricken startup after another.

This is no way to treat the people who brought you Lipitor, Effexor and Allegra.  And, yet, this is the way it’s going.  Big Pharma sees its future as chronic illness specialists.  They will charge hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for a drug that some people can’t live without and will expect insurance companies to pay for them.  Think of it as sponge from some Nathan Brazil Well World novel. I know that a few of my friends are still making a living in companies that are focusing on orphan diseases and oncology but there’s something immoral about hooking up people to drugs you know they can’t live without with the goal of milking every dollar from them.  I realize that research is expensive but we didn’t use to be so mercenary about it.  Instead of solving the problem of out of control research costs, the new wizards of pharma finance have glommed onto cheap, dirty and unsustainable new ways to make money. Reduce your workforce to desperation, focus on the poor unfortunate chronically ill and ignore everyone else. This is the new business model.

And it is broken.

Friday: Bicycles

May is National Bike Month and today is Bike to Work Day.  I know, I know, it seems to come earlier and earlier each year.  But seriously, Americans appear to be willing to entertain the idea that biking in an urban environment can be good for the environment and good for health.  For decades, the bicycle market has been dominated by sports and racing bikes with an emphasis on lightness and speed.  Unfortunately, that left many of us out.  Even hybrids can be can leave a cyclist feeling one quick stop from hurtling over the top of the handle bars.  But recently, we are starting to see the introduction of more upright European bikes and cargo bikes in the US, indicating that there may be a market here for more comfortable and practical riding experiences.  Electric assist bikes can help get you up a hill without feeling like you’re cheating.  Couple that with the addition of more bike lanes in many cities after years of steady advocacy and we may be on the verge of a biking revolution in this country.

To celebrate, let’s take a look at some current bike news:

In Pittsburgh, the Port Authority transit system is adding bike racks to buses.  Check out their handy video on how to “rack and roll“.

New European style bikes mean comfort and places to stash your groceries and laptop.  Check out this video for the features of a typical Dutch bike:

Last month, the British Bobbin came to America.  It’s a bit less upright than Dutch bikes but it’s lighter.  Public Bikes offer a similar style to the upright Dutch bike.  Cargo bikes offer long fenders for paniers or a couple of extra pint sized riders.  Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan at ApartmentTherapy likes the Yuba Mundo 21 Speed Cargo Bike for getting around Manhattan with your kids and your groceries.

And to stash all of your stuff, the new bikes have a lot of nifty options like baskets, bags and paniers.

Urban biking might start a chain reaction of lifestyle changes.  This NYTimes article muses that your dinners might feature more fresh food if you commute by bike since you can’t shop for more than a couple of days at a time when you’re restricted to carrying only one or two grocery bags home.  I can see a whole new retail space for bikers who need to shop for dinner on their way home.  And in Brooklyn, you can meet your friends for a beer or coffee after work and whip out your laptop while you’re waiting for your flat to be fixed.

Sounds great, you say, but what about the hills?  Evanti and CurrieTech offer electric assist bikes complete with solar chargers for the zealous.  I like the iZip E3 Zuma from Currie.  It’s about twice the price of a regular bike but check out that retro style- in aqua.  Lust.

But for those of you who are a bit more adventurous, check out the bike lift in Trondheim, Norway:

It looks so deliciously unsafe and fun, which means we’ll probably never get one here in the states.  But San Francisco is already looking into implementing a bike lift so who knows?  It will probably have guard rails and harnesses and safety seats and will require a release form or something but just thinking about designing one is a fun thought exercise.

The guy who was working at the bike shop I visited yesterday said that REAL bikers would just pedal up the hill but he lives in Metuchen where real HILLS are non-existent.  Try that in a neighborhood of Pittsburgh where the streets go straight up.

Maybe the real impediment to commuter biking taking off in America are bike shop owners who continue to see biking as a highly technical and competitive activity instead of a pleasant, inexpensive and healthy way to get around.  Maybe the next decade will change all of that.  There might be a business opportunity here for the intrepid visionary.

Anyway, have a great National Bike To Work Day.  I’m taking my bike in for a tune up this weekend.  Next week is the annual Tour of Somerville.  I don’t compete but it’s always a fun, festive atmosphere.  See you there?

One final thing: This is city biking in Utrecht.  It’s what American cities could look like if we didn’t have a bunch of hard ass clueless Tea Partiers and Republicans monkeywrenching progress all the time.

Getting the bike paths was no easy task in the Netherlands.  There was a not inconsiderable amount of struggle involved.  Here’s a video that explains how the Dutch did it.  There’s a lesson here for public servants.  Now is the time to push for them.  The timing couldn’t be better to get ahead of the curve.