Celsion: Move to N.J. driven by lack of Md. talent

August 22, 2011|By Jay Hancock

Perhaps too much fuss is being made over the defection of Celsion Corp. to New Jersey. Founded in Maryland in the 1980s, the Columbia-based biotech company has all of 18 employees.

But Celsion is the kind of outfit that is supposed to represent Maryland's economic future: a biomedical research boutique on the verge of launching a product, collecting revenue, booking profits and hiring dozens of workers. And it has decided it doesn't want to do that here.

"What we've found — as we looked at the talent pool in Maryland — there wasn't a large supply of individuals" with experience in marketing, selling and distributing pharmaceuticals, said Jeff Church, Celsion's senior vice president of business strategy.

The state has plenty of pipette and petri dish folks to develop drugs — but not enough people to hawk the drugs and ship them to hospitals.

"We were getting lots of resumes from folks in the Philadelphia area, New Jersey area," Church said. "All the talent we were looking to recruit were based in that corridor up [Interstate] 95."

That's the heart of the traditional U.S. pharmaceutical cluster — Merck, Johnson & Johnson, and so forth.

Celsion's ThermoDox chemotherapy delivers a standard anti-cancer drug in a new way. A wrapping of fat molecules keeps the substance from becoming active when it's first injected into the bloodstream. Heat applied at the tumor melts the fat to release the poison, a delivery system that allows doctors to attack the cancer with far higher doses than with conventional chemo.

The company is testing the drug on hundreds of patients with cancer of the liver, which is difficult to treat. If the trials are successful, analysts figure Celsion could start selling ThermoDox for about $6,000 per treatment late next year or in early 2013.

Keith A. Markey, an analyst with Griffin Securities in New York, said he considers Celsion "pretty high on the scale" for potential success among the biotech companies he follows.

"They're in a good position," he said. "It's a company that's on the cusp of building its infrastructure."

Maryland hasn't had much luck at building a marketing and manufacturing infrastructure for biotech. The longtime hope has been that homegrown companies would invent blockbuster drugs and then make and sell them here, creating the kind of labor pool Celsion is seeking.

Few expect Maryland to give birth to the next Merck or Pfizer. (Merck bought Sharpe & Dohme, a Baltimore maker of vaccines and sulfa drugs, in the 1950s.) But state economic development officials do hope for another MedImmune, the Gaithersburg firm that was bought for $15 billion in 2007 by AstraZeneca.

Celsion is getting the usual government payoff for companies that jump state lines — about $1.1 million from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. To receive the money, Celsion has to add 35 jobs.

Corporate site-selection consultants will tell you that where a company locates is often based on where the CEO wants to live. Celsion boss Michael Tardugno has ties to New Jersey. He lived in Princeton for more than two decades before moving in 2007 to Maryland, where he rented apartments.

Celsion officials deny CEO homesickness is why the company is moving north. Tardugno is from New York, Church said. And he married a Baltimore woman while he lived here, he added.

The company's stated reasons for leaving may disappoint people looking for evidence that Maryland taxes and regulations are the big impediments to job growth in the state. The rising national profile of conservative Republican Gov. Chris Christie notwithstanding, New Jersey is not known as a low-tax, libertarian paradise.

Survey after survey shows that a shortage of qualified workers is the No. 1 complaint of businesses looking to hire in Maryland.

Celsion will possibly be using its new big-pharma neighbors to distribute its drug worldwide. That's another reason to move to New Jersey.

"The really huge market is over in the Asia-Pacific area," Markey said. "That's where they're going to get a lot of interest from very large pharmaceutical companies that would like to use this drug."

Biotech companies already face enough obstacles to success.

The complexity of molecular biology might be rivaled only by the complexity of the bureaucracy at the Food and Drug Administration.

But if Celsion is right, and promising drug outfits can't find Marylanders qualified to help them set up a storefront here, that's a problem.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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