J&J's pharma chairman lands 'more deals' in Boston innovation push

Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) has invested in a pair of biotech upstarts in the Boston area as the healthcare giant seeks more deals and partnerships with external innovators. Also, J&J's previously disclosed Boston Innovation Center officially opened in Cambridge, MA, to serve as a regional hub for collaborations on early-stage science and technology.

Rodin Therapeutics, a Cambridge, MA, biotech startup mining the epigenetics field for drugs against Alzheimer's disease, snapped up one of the two investments from Johnson & Johnson Development Corporation. The J&J venture unit also backed Vedanta Biosciences, which has researched the human microbiome to find new therapies for inflammatory bowel disease and similar ailments.

The investments and innovation center are part of J&J's broader push to support nascent science and technology that could lead to new products in such areas as therapeutics, devices, diagnostics and consumer products. The Cambridge, MA, innovation center is one of four such outposts from J&J. It opened one in Menlo Park, CA, early this month, a London beachhead in March and expects to start operations at fourth center in Shanghai later this year.

On top of opening the innovation center in Cambridge, J&J has expanded its Janssen Labs program into the nearby facilities of LabCentral on the campus of MIT. Johnson & Johnson plans to select a few small life sciences groups to operate at LabCentral. Also, the Boston Innovation Center has joined forces with scientists from Mount Sinai in New York in the immunology field.

Johnson & Johnson and other pharma companies have flocked to the Boston area, which is home to top research institutions such as MIT and Harvard University. Federal research dollars pour into the universities and research hospitals, which have been fertile ground for hot science and talent to grow new and established biotech ventures. 

Paul Stoffels

In Boston "you have an ecosystem that is almost perfect and that's why it works," Dr. Paul Stoffels, who is Johnson & Johnson's chief scientific officer and worldwide chairman, pharmaceuticals, said in an interview with FierceBiotech. "That's why we will be there to be part of that ecosystem, to help it forward, and make sure we get to the best products."

Take Rodin, which formed through a collaboration between Cambridge, MA-based VC firm Atlas Venture and the German drug-discovery group Proteros. Acting CEO Bruce Booth, a partner at Atlas, co-founded the early-stage startup with Marty Jefson, a former head of neuroscience research at Pfizer ($PFE).

Booth had tracked the underlying science behind Rodin since 2007, and J&J decided to invest in the startup after following the same field. Dr. Jeffrey Nye, who heads J&J's external innovation in neuroscience, was involved in the company's seed investment in Rodin.

"They are going to bring to bear a lot of their neuroscience expertise," said Booth, who declined to reveal financial details of the investments from his firm or J&J.

"We're moving much, much, much earlier in the innovation center model than typically what [Johnson & Johnson's] business development teams have done historically," said Robert Urban, head of J&J's Boston Innovation Center, in a telephone interview. The Boston center serves as a base for the eastern half of North America, he added.

Entrenched in the life sciences hub of Kendall Square, the Boston Innovation Center expands J&J's reach into the labs and entrepreneurial ecosystem that have produced the area's great biotech companies such as Biogen Idec ($BIIB) and Vertex Pharmaceuticals ($VRTX). Vertex also has a major partnership with J&J for its hepatitis C drug Incivek.

"We'll have everything we need in Boston to collaborate with the community there," Stoffels said. "What will change? We'll do more deals. We'll be smarter because we'll learn more from being around."

- here's the release

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