J&J, BARDA pick 7 startups to back in fight against COVID-19—and beyond

As the world scrambles to develop diagnostics, treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, one big question looms: How will we face the next pandemic? Johnson & Johnson and the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) are teaming up once again to answer that.

Through a joint effort dubbed Blue Knight, the duo aims to boost innovation and “amplify” scientific and technological advancements to prepare for potential health threats—starting with COVID-19. They've picked seven startups from J&J’s global JLABS network to participate. The startups will receive up to $500,000 in support, as well as mentorship from BARDA and J&J to help them navigate R&D challenges and regulatory pathways and get medicines and tools to patients and healthcare workers as soon as possible.

“In our fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, we must act with urgency to support the entrepreneurs working on the ‘fragile frontlines’ of innovation. These pioneers in science and research are working, often with limited resources, to bring the potential healthcare solutions needed today over the finish line, as well as advance the vaccines, technologies and therapies of tomorrow," Melinda Richter, global head of JLABS, said in a statement.

“Blue Knight was designed to be bold in anticipating emerging threats, activating the global innovation community in new ways and amplifying the technological advances that aim to secure the future health of our families and communities,” she added.

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Based across North America and Europe, the startups’ work ranges from preventive treatments and immunity boosters to repurposing approved drugs and gene editing, underscoring the need to attack COVID-19 and future pandemics on many different fronts.

“Our preparedness and response to emerging public health threats as well as existing debilitating diseases requires new, transformational approaches,” William Hait, M.D., Ph.D., global head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, said in the statement. “Through Blue Knight, jointly with BARDA, Johnson & Johnson Innovation aims to identify and nurture the best ideas of early-stage companies from across our global innovation network to accelerate the development of potentially life-changing new solutions aimed to prevent, intercept, treat and cure serious diseases.”

The companies include Houston-based 7 Hills Pharma and San Diego’s Persephone Biosciences, both of which are taking an immunity-based approach. The former is working on an immune stimulant designed to boost a person’s immune response to tumor antigens or infectious diseases, while the latter is developing a microbiome treatment that could reduce the chances of infection or even bolster vaccines against the virus.

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New York’s Autonomous Therapeutics, meanwhile, is focused on prophylactic treatments against all coronaviruses, not just COVID-19, while South San Francisco-based Epic Bio is exploring the use of Cas13d enzymes to alter viral RNA sequences and stop SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in its tracks. In a similar tack, Specific Biologics out of Toronto is developing a gene editor that can be delivered using nanoparticles to eliminate the genome of the virus.

Beerse, Belgium-based Genome Biologics is using a computational platform to find new links between FDA- and EMA-approved drugs and diseases, including COVID-19. It then tests those drugs on its organoid platform to pick the most promising ones. And last but not least, GabiSmartCare, also based in Beerse, has created a remote monitoring system that could be used to catch respiratory issues early or monitor patients recovering from COVID-19.

These seven startups are just the beginning; J&J will continue to review applications for the program on a rolling basis. Companies may take up residency at JLABS in Washington, D.C., New York, San Diego or Toronto. If candidates don’t need a physical location or lab space, they may participate virtually.

“BARDA’s partnership with Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS is part of the whole-of-America approach needed to respond not only to COVID-19 but also to the myriad of evolving health security threats our nation faces,” acting BARDA Director Gary Disbrow, Ph.D., said in the statement. “With Blue Knight embedded within the global JLABS network, we can support healthcare entrepreneurs focused on the development of advanced innovations to improve our nation’s response capability and protect us all from future public health emergencies.”