There’s a new player in the city (of Toronto). Yesterday, Johnson & Johnson Innovation JLABS opened their life sciences incubator in the MaRS Discovery District. They’re launching with 22 start-up companies (their biggest launch yet), ranging from big data cloud services for genomics to a company for a wearable sticker that tells you when you need to reapply sunscreen. Their mandate is to bring together early-stage life science companies into a centralized hub and provide easy access to the resources of Big Pharma. By combining people of different backgrounds, they aim to create new atypical collaborations that could solve medical problems from a new approach. Disruptive healthcare innovation? Get ready, Toronto. Get ready, world.
Here’s J&J’s announcement regarding the opening of JLABS, followed by Medgadget‘s exclusive photo tour and interview with the Head of JLABS, Melinda Richter.
Ben Ouyang, Medgadget: How does JLABS work?
Melinda Richter, Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS: The basic premise behind Johnson & Johnson Innovation is that we believe that great science is just as likely to come out of the walls of a big company like J&J as it is inside. When it’s out there, it faces many more hurdles to becoming a patient solution. We want to take down those hurdles and help those innovators become successful.
Our goal at JLABS is to enable and empower the local innovation community to turn the research into a commercial entity. We’ll do educational programs, networking events, funding series with VCs, granting agencies, corporate ventures, or other corporations (even if they are our competitors). Our goal is to help our companies build skills and networks to build their own company. Most importantly, we want to instill in them a sense of confidence. You don’t have to be in Silicon Valley. You can do it right here in Toronto.
The second thing is that we want to give them a platform and resources that is equivalent to what our internal R&D teams have. In a space like this, you have a core set of research labs that have state-of-the-art equipment. Instead of raising capital, you can come in and pay-as-you-go on a monthly dime instead of raising a bunch of money at once. You’ll get your own individual personalized lab: biology, chemistry, prototyping. We provide business, HR, legal services. We’re trying to catalyze the ecosystem to build up the volume and quality of companies here in the region.
As you come into JLABS, there are no strings attached. You pay for your spot, but then you get to work with different experts at J&J and move it forward. We’ll give them access to resources that small companies don’t usually have, like regulatory experts, or market access experts, etc. After some time, we might strike a deal with the companies. We can do the traditional equity deal, or license, or collaboration, or a very creative deal. For example, you might be working on something that’s revolutionary. You’re really excited and we’re really excited, but neither of us is really sure and it’s too early to put in a lot of money. So we’ll fund a killer experiment and might fund $50,000 for 3 months – no strings attached. We’ll do that and that allows us to move that ball forward.
Medgadget: What areas are you focusing in?
Richter: From a pharmaceutical perspective, we look at neuroscience, oncology, cardiovascular, metabolics, infectious disease and vaccines, and immunology. From the medical device side, we have a broad spectrum, but surgery, orthopedics is important to us. On the consumer side, we look at health, beauty, oral, and digital health.
Medgadget: Why Toronto?
Richter: It’s an incredible urban landscape that includes the University of Toronto, SickKids, Princess Margaret Hospital, UHN [University Health Network]. All of the different hospitals are around here, and now you have bench to bedside –researchers, scientists, entrepreneurs, clinicians, patients. Now you’re in a microcosm of the entire healthcare system, all right here, all within a block. Think about how easy it is to go iterate. That’s why Toronto is so unique. I expect amazing things to come out of JLABS at Toronto.
There’s also a diverse population of patients. When you think about personalized medicine, you want to be able to have access to a broad diversity of patients that allow you to find commonalities between them that allow you to fine-tune your solutions for them. Most importantly, you have a population of people here that are ambitious. They want to make healthcare better. So it was that entrepreneurial spirit that we saw here that needed something else in the mix. You have the universities and thehospitals, but needed the commercialization platform like JLABS. We thought we could help make a difference; that we could be complimentary to all the assets that are already here. And so together, we’d become a much stronger partnership.
Medgadget: Who’s your competition?
Richter: We’re in competition with different industries, like the tech industry. Everybody wants to do Google, Facebook, and all that fun stuff. But we want to make the life sciences industry a place where investors want to go first. Where the best talent wants to go first. We think we can get more high-potential talent into this industry, and that will create more opportunities for everybody.
Medgadget: What are you looking for in the companies that apply to join JLABS?
Richter: Is the technology and science really interesting to us? Is the team a rockstar team? Also, we want to find that hot, young talent that’s never done it before that has the ambition and the drive. Because they’ve never done it before, we can have the most impact with those teams. If we give the access to the experience and wisdom from experts, combined with the exciting possibilities of this dynamic new talent, we might be able to do some pretty revolutionary things together.
Medgadget: How did you switch from a non-biotech background into running a multinational biotech innovation hub?
Richter: It’s one of those things that if I knew what I was getting into, I probably wouldn’t have done it. It’s so hard. But it’s so meaningful.
One of the biggest things was to look at it from a different perspective than what everybody else had been looking at it for years. How do we make this more efficient, accessible, and affordable, so that everybody can have an opportunity to do it? Tech companies can start off with a few thousand dollars, and in a couple of years, can sell to a Microsoft or Google for millions of dollars. That’s because they have all the platform and resources they need quite quickly and easily. I looked at what it takes for the life sciences. It can take years and millions of dollars to get your infrastructure up and running, buy your equipment, get your experts. So what can make it better? I went back to my old corporate days where I was rotating into a new position and running new projects in a short period of time. I could dothat because every new place I landed, there was infrastructure, equipment, legal teams, operational teams, and so on. This made it much easier for me to execute on my project. So I thought about taking that model of a big corporation and creating a small microcosm of it for early-stage life sciences companies, and providing everything they needed in one building and one place. It would include not just infrastructure and equipment, but people who could help you focus on just your project.
Medgadget: Anything else we should know about JLABS?
Richter: We designed this space for today’s 8th grader. Make sense? I’ll tell you why. We wanted the 8th grader to walk in here and say: “wow, this place is so cool; when I grow up, I want to work in a place like this”. We want to get kids excited about STEM programs, and about the business of health. We also thought that if you in a working environment like that, you could imagine doing tomorrow’s solutions today. We want to inspire people to go for it; go for broke; go for the futuristic, space-age kind of stuff. And you can do it today, if you’re in an environment like this. We hope to inspire the innovators in this community to be on the world stage, and to be the next Elon Musk of healthcare.