Westchester’s Unexpected Powerhouse Position In the Biotech Industry

It’s springtime for Westchester’s biotech industry. All around, there are signs of a Biochester bloom: near Tarrytown, for instance, where two new sprawling office and lab buildings rise alongside a landmark biotech campus; and along the Yonkers waterfront, where a 21st-century infectious disease-treatment venture thrives inside a 19th-century factory building. Across the county, an ecology of institutions is emerging, working to further propagate the sector’s presence in Westchester. 

After reporting about our burgeoning local biotech enterprises for 914INC.’s Q1 2011 issue, we were eager to follow up on what has become one of the most promising technology terroirs east of Silicon Valley. In the four years since that story, several innovative Westchester-developed medicines have been approved for patients and aptly marketed, generating welcome revenue streams for their corporate discoverers (and stock gains for investors—see “Buying Shares of Biochester”). Breakthroughs made here have amounted to meaningful improvements in the treatment options for sufferers of chronic diseases like multiple sclerosis or macular degeneration. 

Signs of Biochester’s growth are everywhere. Consider Acorda Therapeutics. “We’ve more than doubled in size since the last time I spoke to you,” says Ron Cohen, MD, Acorda’s president and CEO. At the time, his firm’s lead product, Ampyra, had been on the market for less than a year. “It is now a well-established drug. More than 100,000 people with multiple sclerosis have tried it. It is the standard of care for people with MS who have walking difficulties,” Dr. Cohen explains. Ampyra now generates $400 million annually in net sales. Not bad for a firm that began, literally, in a rented office closet 20 years ago.   

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Ardsley’s Acorda Therapeutics has doubled in size since 2011 thanks to the runaway success of its MS drug, Ampyra. 

When we checked in for our 2011 story, the company, devoted to treatment of neurological disorders, was bursting at the seams of its office and lab space atop Hawthorne’s Skyline Drive. In 2012, Acorda relocated its headquarters about eight miles south to an Ardsley office park originally built for Swiss multinational pharma pioneer Ciba in 1956 and renovated by another biotech firm that moved out because of a corporate merger. Two years after its arrival, a growing Acorda added 20 percent to its space. 

In 2011, Acorda’s founder seemed burned out by failed attempts to promote the 914 area code as a biotech hub, including proposed biotechnology facilities—like the ambitious “North 60,” to be built on 60 acres of the Westchester Medical Center Grasslands campus in Valhalla—that couldn’t net approval or government funding. 

“Now I feel there’s help to push the noodle up the hill,” explains Dr. Cohen, whose firm has benefited recently from state and county tax credits and abatements—ranging from $5.2 million as part of the New York State Excelsior Jobs Program for job retention to exemptions from the local sales tax on capital improvements from Westchester’s Industrial Development Agency totaling more than $5 million. 

“The last few years are the first time I’ve seen a confluence of interest coming from various government arms, both local and state. I want to give a shout-out to Rob Astorino, our county executive, and Paul Feiner, the Greenburgh town supervisor, and others who have made it clear that they are very interested in seeing us build a great biotech industry here.” (There are even efforts by the county to revive the North 60 project.)  

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Also tilling the soil for biotech growth in Westchester is Acorda’s landlord, San Diego-based BioMed Realty Trust, Inc., a real estate development company specializing in life sciences tenants across the US. With more than 153 buildings in biotech hot spots like Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle, BioMed has unique expertise in meeting the needs of pharmaceutical research labs and their support staffs. “We are the biggest owners of real estate dedicated to the life sciences in Westchester and in New York State,” says Laura Woznitski, senior director, leasing and development for BioMed. “It’s not just the real estate itself but also our staff catering to the requirements and the service levels that life sciences tenants need.”

For Acorda, that meant flexibility in configuring facilities to suit its expansion. 

About seven miles north of Acorda’s site, off of Route 9A, new buildings are going up at the Landmark at Eastview, BioMed’s original Westchester property and the epicenter of Biochester. Once the research labs of chemical manufacturer Union Carbide, this 140-acre industrial park, noticeable for its spectacular office bridge that spans across Old Saw Mill River Road, has been built out twice to accommodate Westchester’s biomed whale, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc., with headquarters and labs here since 1989.

The WCA’s annual HealthTech conference in Tarrytown brings together visionaries from across the lifesciences field, like Neil Stahl, PhD, of Regeneron.

BioMed is building Regeneron’s latest expansion: a four-story state-of-the-art facility that will house the company’s newest genomics venture, the Regeneron Genetics Center. Regeneron will use the space to expand its foothold in the growing field of personalized medicine, using DNA analysis of tens of thousands of individuals’ genomes to determine associations between specific genes and human diseases. 

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“We are now the fifth-largest US biotechnology company and one of the fastest growing,” says Leonard Schleifer, MD, PhD, Regeneron’s founder, president, and CEO. Since 2011, his company has added more than 500 jobs in Tarrytown to the almost 1,000 positions already there. Feeding the company’s expansion have been the launches of Eylea, its injectable drug for eye disorders (generating more than $1.4 billion in yearly sales) and Zaltrap, a potent protein that limits tumor growth in the body. Regeneron’s stellar performance and exemplary work environment (named No. 1 biopharmaceutical employer in the world by Science Magazine for the last three years) have helped draw the interest of other biotechs to the county. 

Says Dr. Schleifer: “Westchester has always been home for us, and for many years, we were one of the few biotech companies in this area. It’s great to see the emerging cluster and to know that Regeneron was able to contribute to that growth.”  

Alongside Regeneron at the Landmark at Eastview resides Progenics Pharmaceuticals, Westchester’s longest established biotech pioneer. The company, which started in 1988, hit a rough patch in 2011 and 2012. It cut about a quarter of its staff and refocused its efforts on cancer-related therapies. Relistor, a drug that treats constipation caused by opioid pain medication prescribed for cancer patients, has helped Progenics stay alive, with the prospect of renewed growth in its chosen field.      

 It’s the nature of business to run into an abundance of downdrafts to go with the upsides, and Biochester is no exception. According to the New York State Department of Labor, from 2011 to mid-2014 (the latest stats available), Westchester actually lost a handful of biotech firms (down to 112 from 120), and employment in the sector grew by an underwhelming 1.5 percent. 

Divergent corporate fortunes are on display at the former Otis Elevator Company factory—repurposed for office use—in downtown Yonkers. Four years ago, on the fourth floor, Aureon Laboratories, a firm with a novel diagnostic analysis for prostate cancer biopsies, seemed destined for success, only to succumb to financial problems, leaving the floor empty. Just one story below, ContraFect Corporation, which researches antibacterial molecules known as lysins, has doubled its space since arriving in mid-2011. The company began in a Manhattan office and relocated to the county to create lab space. It currently has 23 on-site employees.

“We wanted to recruit people from the city and the immediate area, and we wanted them to have easy access,” says Barry Kappel, MD, senior vice president for business development. “We saw that we could get space here for a third to a fifth of what it would have cost in the city. Yonkers was very welcoming with economic incentives. It’s been a good match for us.”

The Regeneron Genetics Center in Tarrytown will support advances in the emerging field of genomic research.  

Adding to Biochester’s fertile environment since 2011 is a startup support network the county had been previously lacking. For example, most prolific technology hubs across the country have gained sustenance from faculty and students of a major academic institution. The launch in 2014 of a biotech incubator, BioINC@NYMC, by Valhalla’s New York Medical College, should help germinate some of tomorrow’s local pharma phenomena (see “Growing the Next Blockbuster”).

Also providing welcome reinforcement for the county’s biotech community have been the efforts of the Westchester County Association (WCA). As part of its BLUEPRINT for Westchester economic development initiative beginning in 2011, the business group has sponsored several meet-up groups for biotech innovators as well as an annual HealthTech conference with pitch contests for startups—like Mount Vernon-based Databean LLC, the first to win a $10,000 award. Databean gained affiliation with WCA’s Accelerator Network for small businesses, which is also currently offering startup mentoring and professional expertise to health app developers Mobile Health One and Nuvita Corporate Wellness Solutions. In early 2015, WCA launched the Hudson Valley Workforce Academy to help train potential employees for area health firms. “Health tech is a source of great, quality jobs,” says Marissa Brett, WCA president. “We’ve never looked so attractive to this sector before. It’s our time to capitalize on that.”

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