When Delaware Valley University and the Hepatitis B Foundation came together a decade ago to form the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center, things were good. The Center blossomed into a regional life sciences hub. But that partnership has now soured. And with jobs and federal funding in jeopardy, local officials have started to intervene.
Desperate to save the economic engine, the Bucks County Industrial Development Authority is pushing to take over a pending $4.7 million federal grant and secure the necessary matching funding so that the center can expand.
“We cannot signal to the research community — the scientific research community — that Bucks County is not open for business,” said Pete Krauss, head of the agency.
Over its 10 years, Krauss said, the center has provided 300 jobs and pumped $500 million into the economy.
The disagreement between the two owners revolves around the Canadian pharmaceutical company Arbutus, which specializes in hepatitis B drugs and is one of the stars of the Center. Without the ability to expand, Loughery said there is fear the company, along with others, might move away.
The Hepatitis B Foundation backs the expansion effort and wants to renovate a neighboring building to provide extra space. But Delaware Valley University is wary of the deal.
“It’s inappropriate for them to negotiate a lease with the company they have a major financial interest in without us sitting at the table,” said Majid Alsayegh, vice chair of the board of trustees of Delaware Valley University and the treasurer on the board of the center.
Alsayegh also alleged that the foundation has mismanaged funds. He said he was shocked to learn the center is $7 million in debt and has only $200,000 in the bank. Even if it means losing the nearly $5 million federal grant, so be it. “We cannot give up our fiduciary responsibility,” he said.
The Hepatitis B Foundation denies mismanagement, and says the success of the popular space speaks for itself. Instead, it claims the university is trying to wrest control of the center.
“Now that it’s a success, I think they just want to come in, control it,” said Rich Sokorai, an attorney representing the foundation.
“We’re talking over a $10 million capital infusion into this center to retain some of the best biotech companies in the region — in the country,” he added. “We just can’t let that opportunity slip away.”
Rob Loughery, chairman of the county commissioners in Bucks County, said the disputes between the co-owners might be legitimate, but shouldn’t put the future of the incubator at risk.
“I don’t believe any of them are of the level or the nature to stop and halt the progress and these opportunities that we have at the center,” he said.
For now, though, the situation remains at a standoff.