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March 23, 2015

Branford is CT’s quiet bioscience startup hub

PHOTOs | Contributed Branford is home to dozens of bioscience companies that occupy research and lab space in various buildings around the shoreline town of 28,000 people.
PHOTO | Contributed Bioscience advocate CURE has held meetings promoting Branford’s bioscience capabilities. Pictured from left are Brandford Economic Development Commission Chairman Perry Maresca, State Rep. Lonnie Reed (D-Branford), CURE Executive Director Susan Froshauer, and Branford First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove.

While Farmington and New Haven are thought to be the epicenters of Connecticut's nascent bioscience industry, the small, shoreline town of Branford has been a force in attracting some of the state's most innovative startups.

The town's most recent coup was landing the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, which opened in October a state-of-the-art genomics research facility on Commercial Street. Startups like Pfizer spinoff Durata, and neurological disease researcher Axerion Therapeutics are among the dozens of bioscience companies that call Branford home.

In an effort to further boost its bioscience foothold, Branford government and industry officials plan to meet this week for the first time with Farmington's Jackson Laboratory to discuss ways they can work together to make the state a national bioscience hub.

“We are trying to showcase Branford as the place for the biotech industry,” said Perry Maresca, chairman of the town's economic development commission. “Jackson Labs is trying to show their role in Connecticut is more than just in the Hartford region but throughout the entire state.”

Before Gov. Dannel P. Malloy invested $1 billion to expand the UConn Health Center and entice Jackson Labs to Farmington, the majority of the state's bioscience industry centered around Yale University. That made New Haven a natural bioscience hub, since most of Yale's research was done in its hometown.

Starting in 1987, however, Branford became a place where bioscience startups began to gravitate. It started with the opening of drug researcher Neurogen Corp., which was acquired in 2009 for $11 million by San Diego-based Ligand.

Startups that followed include: 454 Life Sciences, a DNA sequencing specialist acquired by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche; molecular chemistry firm CGI Pharmaceuticals, which was acquired for $120 million by California biopharmaceutical firm Gilead Sciences; and Marinus Pharmaceuticals, which has moved onto the latest phase of its epilepsy drug clinical trials.

While Neurogen and Marinus moved out of Branford after being acquired, 454 and CGI remain in the town.

Branford is also currently home to biotech startups like software manager Core Informatics and immune system researcher Isoplexis.

“Historically, Branford has been — in addition to New Haven — a place where bioscience has gotten a foothold,” said Susan Froshauer, president and CEO of Connecticut bioscience advocate CURE.

By attracting bioscience companies earlier than most other parts of Connecticut, Branford has been able to build facilities that attract the industry, mainly lab and research space.

Town officials have also become attune to the industry's unique needs, Maresca said, especially permitting for scientific activities that can include medical waste.

“You have a workforce that is readily available to be tapped when someone new comes in here,” Maresca said. “The town itself very much appreciates the contributions that the biotech industry brings.”

Terry Elton, head of the Branford's economic development department, said when a bioscience company wants to open, town officials will work with them to expedite the process.

Other advantages Branford has in attracting bioscience companies, Elton said, include: being located on I-95 and Metro-North, near New Haven, and midway between New York City and Boston; having the lowest property tax rate of any shoreline town at 26 mills; having established water and sewer infrastructure; and boasting 20 miles of shoreline, the most of any Connecticut town.

Elton said Branford also has great quality of life, offering bioscience researchers and executives the chance to avoid long commutes by living and working in the town, which has more than 75 restaurants, including four microbreweries.

By keeping executives and researchers in the area, that makes them more likely to establish new startups and companies in town when the previous generation moves out, Maresca said.

Michael Van Zandt launched New England Discovery Partners in Branford because he and the rest of his team had a history with the town. Van Zandt was a department head for the Institute for Pharmaceutical Discovery in Branford until it closed in 2012.

New England Discovery Partners, which does contract chemistry work for large companies and universities, is now one of six companies occupying the former Institute for Pharmaceutical Discovery's space on Business Park Drive in Branford.

“Branford is a good location,” Van Zandt said. “It is right off the highway, which is good. It is close to New Haven, which is good.”

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