CEO Leadership Series: Debbie Hart, President & CEO, BioNJ

Debbie Hart
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SUPPORTING INNOVATION IN A RAPIDLY EVOLVING INDUSTRY

In 1994, Debbie Hart became the founding president of BioNJ, a trade group that initially represented approximately 30 biotech companies. Over the next 23 years, Ms. Hart used her considerable association management experience to turn BioNJ into an influential organization with a network of 400 research-based life sciences companies and stakeholders.

“I never imagined the really wild ride I would be on now for almost 25 years,” says Ms. Hart. “It’s been incredibly fun and rewarding, and it’s my passion.”

In an interview with Ashton Tweed, Ms. Hart talks about the challenge of hiring the right talent at the right time and what innovation means to the industry.

How did you get involved in founding BioNJ?

Back in the early ‘90s, there were about 30 biotech companies in New Jersey and the industry leaders saw the future and believed that there was the opportunity for biotech to grow. So, they asked the state to consider doing things to support them and their growth. The state turned around and said: “Establish a trade association and come back and talk to us as a unified voice.” So, that’s when the biotech leaders came to me. I run an association management company and I’ve basically been in association management all my life.

So, between the early days of getting incorporated and establishing the board and membership rates, etc., and today, when we now have 400 members, we’ve had unbelievable, steady, growth for almost 25 years. Today, New Jersey has the third largest biotech cluster in the country.

Even though the association does not deal directly with patients, per se, our members are, and we’re supporting our members as they support patients. Our tagline is “Because Patients Can’t Wait” and we’ve infused that into literally everything we do. BioNJ has now become a cause to help our members help patients.

What does innovation mean to the life science industry?

It means so many things. Certainly innovation on the scientific front, for example the developments in gene editing and immunotherapy, as well as innovation in the way that healthcare is delivered, such as telehealth and other technology, and the more patient-centered healthcare systems that are looking at getting the right medicine to the right patient at the right time.

In terms of innovation in talent, New Jersey’s really been a leader on that front. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had support from the state government for the past 12 years to enable us to provide talent services.  And today, at BioNJ, we run the Life Sciences Talent Network, which is focused on helping people find companies and companies find people to make sure that the talent develops here and stays here.

What are the biggest challenges involved in hiring to support innovation in the life science industry?

Since the industry is ever evolving and the number of companies is ever increasing, the challenge is having the right people at the right time. Developing entrepreneurs has always been a challenge. Entrepreneurs are usually born that way, but they need support and the correct environment to help them grow. There’s certainly been both a challenge and an opportunity, frankly, to help develop entrepreneurship here in New Jersey.

What skills do you look for that will help foster innovation in an organization?

As we have built our team out at BioNJ, we place an emphasis on the soft skills—leadership skills, strategic vision, collaborative skills, communication skills—those skills that aren’t hard science. Our ideal scenario is someone who has expertise in their particular vertical area, as well as the soft skills, and if they have industry experience, all the better. Because New Jersey is such a hotbed of industry talent, we’ve been able to recruit some real superstars who are steeped in the industry in various ways.

What’s next on the “wild and fun ride” with BioNJ?

BioNJ is working to increase awareness around the value of medical innovation and the difference it makes for patients—in terms of increased life expectancy and quality of life. For example, U.S. cancer survivors have more than doubled to 14.5 million since 1990; Hepatitis C – a once incurable disease now has cure rates above 90 %; HIV/AIDS – once a death sentence, is now a chronic manageable condition; and Childhood Cancer – 83% of children with cancer now survive, compared to 58% in 1970.

Our work in promoting the value of medical innovation is relatively new, and we’re rolling that out on many fronts. We are encouraging our members to help us tell the story, educating the community on the impact that biomedical innovation is having as well as working with our legislators at the state and federal levels to help them better understand the value of medical innovation. We believe we can make a difference in raising the awareness of what the industry does and what it takes to bring a drug to market.

The “wild ride” has been fun and rewarding. It’s watching and supporting the growth of the industry and working with an amazing group of people including our members, our Board and our team, and being able to be entrepreneurial ourselves and create things from nothing. We are inspired by the opportunity to help our members help patients…and blessed to have the chance. And where we are today is not where we’ll be in just a year or two. The promise is breathtaking.

Ashton Tweed would like to thank Debbie Hart for this interview. If your company needs help from members of the Ashton Tweed Life Sciences Executive Talent Bank, we can supply that assistance either on an interim or a permanent basis. Additionally, if you are among the many life sciences professionals affected by the changes in the industry, Ashton Tweed can help you find the right placement opportunity — from product discovery through commercialization at leading life sciences companies — including interim executive positions and full-time placements. In either case, please email Ashton Tweed or call us at 610-725-0290. Ashton Tweed is pleased to continue to present insightful articles of interest to the industry.

Debbie HartDebbie Hart

Debbie Hart, the founding President and CEO of BioNJ, has worked with New Jersey’s biotechnology industry leaders to establish and grow the organization since 1994. She is also the CEO of Association Associates Inc., a trade and professional association management company, which she founded in 1992. Ms. Hart is a founding board member and officer of OpportunityNJ, on the board of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, and a member of the Board of Directors for Choose New Jersey. She also currently serves on the NJ Council on Innovation and on advisory boards of the New Jersey Innovation Institute, Institute for Life Sciences Entrepreneurship at Kean University, and New Jersey Economic Development Authority. In addition, Ms. Hart is a board member of the Rutgers University Blanche and Irwin Lerner Center for the Study of Pharmaceutical Management at Rutgers University Business School.

Among the many awards she’s received, Ms. Hart is a five-time NJBIZ Power 100, a listing of the 100 most influential people in New Jersey business (most recently 2017) and the World’s 100 Most Influential People in Biotechnology by Scientific American Worldview.  She has been honored by the Women’s Fund of New Jersey as a Woman Advancing Science. She was also named one of New Jersey’s top CEOs by Commerce Magazine. Both Ms. Hart and BioNJ were recognized by the New Jersey Institute of Technology with a New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame Award.

Ms. Hart earned a master’s degree from the S. I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University, where she graduated cum laude, and a bachelor of arts degree from The College of New Jersey, where she graduated magna cum laude. She and her husband, Bob, live in Robbinsville, N.J.

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