When the Science Center became Centocor Inc.’s first home in 1979, it was doing more than help a company get started. It was helping an entire industry get started.
Centocor today is Janssen Biotech Inc., a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson that employs 300 at its campus in Horsham and more than 700 sales and support staff at other locations across the country.
But when it was launched at the Science Center, it was one of the first biotechnology companies — in not just southeastern Pennsylvania, but the entire country.
Centocor was founded in 1979 by serial entrepreneur Michael Wall; Hilary Koprowski, then the director of The Wistar Institute,; Hubert J.P. Schoemaker, then a senior manager at Corning Biomedical; Vincent Zurawski, then a junior faculty member at Harvard Medical School and a fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital; and Carlo Croce, then a professor and senior investigator at Wistar.
With limited resources, Centocor focused its initial efforts on product development. The founders used their scientific expertise and entrepreneurial instincts to craft a business plan that leveraged discoveries made elsewhere – in universities, government agencies, even private laboratories, many of which were located in University City. Ultimately, this business plan made the Science Center a logical destination to set up shop.
Access to nearby research, especially Koprowski’s pioneering work at The Wistar Institute’s budding hybridoma facility, was of great value to Centocor in supporting the company’s founding premise that monoclonal antibodies could be used to diagnose and treat a variety of illnesses. From a scientific perspective, the Science Center’s proximity to the exciting research being done at Wistar was a competitive advantage.
The Science Center’s flexibility also was an asset. According to Zurawski, the team was able to quickly secure a small space close to The Wistar Institute, which allowed the founders to test its business plan without expending precious resources.
“Initially, while we were closing our first major financing we were not in a position to build our own laboratory space,” said Zurawski. “The Science Center’s ability to provide a small cubicle space close to Wistar and also shared laboratory space in the Connective Tissue Research Institute, which was also located in the Science Center and was provided by the director, Nicholas Kefalides, was very important for us.”
More broadly, the Science Center’s regional linkages — sandwiched between New York and Washington, D.C. — placed Centocor at the heart of a corridor rich with resources and teeming with life sciences and biotechnology activity. From a financial perspective, the late 1970s was an ideal time to start a biotechnology company. Scientific advancements had caught the eye of Wall Street investors, who were suddenly bullish on the industry’s long-term growth potential. Philadelphia’s geographic proximity to these markets exposed Centocor to eager venture capitalists and investors looking to get in on the action.
This strategic location set the stage for Centocor’s growth. By the end of 1982, Centocor had raised $21 million in an initial public offering and introduced its first products, diagnostic tests for rabies, and gastrointestinal and ovarian cancer.
By that time, Centocor also had moved out of the Science Center to Malvern, Pa., where it continued to expand.
The company’s presence helped turn Philadelphia’s western suburbs into a center for biotechnology and technology companies. Schoemaker, Centocor’s first CEO, helped found venture-capital firm TL Ventures and the Eastern Technology Council, a predecessor of the Greater Philadelphia Alliance for Capital and Technologies (PACT).
Centocor’s diagnostic products proved crucial to the company’s survival in the early 1990s when its first new drug candidate, Centoxin, failed to gain Food and Drug Administration approval as a treatment for sepsis.
In 1998, however, the FDA approved another Centocor drug, Remicade®, as a treatment for a gastrointestinal malady known as Crohn’s disease. The FDA has since approved Remicade for 15 other uses in gastroenterology, rheumatology and dermatology.
The year after Remicade received its first FDA approval, Johnson & Johnson acquired Centocor for $4.9 billion. Centocor moved its corporate headquarters to Horsham in 2003, but kept its manufacturing facility in Malvern.
In 2008, Centocor and Ortho Biotech, two J&J companies, joined together, creating Centocor Ortho Biotech Inc. The newly named company continued to launch new drugs to treat autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, ulcerative colitis, plaque psoriasis and active psoriatic arthritis.
In 2011, the company’s name changed to Janssen Biotech as part of an effort by J&J to unify its pharmaceutical business under one common identity, the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson.
Since then the company has received FDA approval for new medications that treat diseases including prostate cancer rheumatoid arthritis and mantle cell lymphoma
Of course, it all started at the Science Center, where today efforts are being accelerated to incubate dozens more biotechnology companies – and, perhaps, the next Centocor.