Johnson & Johnson's D.C. incubator opens for business with diversity at its core

The pandemic wasn’t going to slow JLABS down. Two years after announcing a new location, Johnson & Johnson’s incubator arm opened its doors in the nation’s capital on Monday, right on time. 

The new hub, dubbed JLABS @ Washington, D.C., will host up to 50 startups spanning pharmaceuticals, medical devices, consumer and health tech companies, including those working on pediatric care. The first group of companies moving in include spinouts from the Children’s National Hospital, J&J’s partner in running the site, startups local to the D.C. area and those from other parts of the country.

“We’ve selected companies that are here in the [D.C., Maryland and Virginia] region and we’ve also selected a company from New York and one from Alabama that are looking specifically to expand in the D.C. area,” said Sally Allain, head of JLABS @ Washington, D.C. “We have two international companies coming in as part of the first group of companies.” 

RELATED: Johnson & Johnson to open JLabs virtual networking pod in Philadelphia 

Though it’s home to the National Institutes of Health and federal agencies like the FDA, the D.C. area doesn’t always spring to mind as a biotech hub the way Boston, San Diego or the Bay Area do. 

“It’s unfortunate, because the capital region has so much here. I think it’s untapped,” said Allain, who figures that with the growth in manufacturing and investing in the area, the region could catapult into the top five biotech hubs pretty soon. 

Sally Allain, head of JLABS @ Washington, D.C.
(Matt Sprague)

Companies in the U.S. and abroad want to have a footprint in D.C. to tap into talent in the region, not to mention lean on the strength of the district's research institutions and reach regulators easily, Allain said. That last factor was especially important for Acclinate, a digital health company that started out in Huntsville, Alabama, to diversify clinical trials. 

Rather than approaching communities of color directly and asking them to participate in clinical trials, Acclinate focuses on building trust in those communities and educating them about healthy living and the importance of participating in trials. 

RELATED: Johnson & Johnson pens Children's National deal to bring JLABS to D.C. 

“Through that work, we have the ability to collect data and be able to utilize that data in a platform we’ve developed that uses machine learning and predictive analytics to … determine who is most likely to take part in a trial, when do you ask them to take part in a trial, how do you ask them to take part in a trial,” said Delmonize “Del” Smith, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of Acclinate. 

The company’s first expansion beyond Huntsville was Birmingham, Alabama, in December 2020. Other cities were considered, including Boston, but Birmingham was the best fit, with its focus on healthcare, technology and developing minority-owned businesses, Smith told the Birmingham Times. For its next site, D.C. “was an easy yes.” 

“Being four miles from the FDA, being in the center of D.C. where so much of regulation takes place and is discussed—our plan is to be at those tables to lend insights and solutions to those problems,” Smith said. 

Acclinate is participating in Blue Knight, a joint effort by JLABS and the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). Launched in August 2020, the program aims to boost innovators preparing for potential health threats, including COVID-19. 

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

Startups participating in the program may take up residency at JLABS in D.C., New York, San Diego or Toronto, and, if they don’t need a physical location or lab space, they may participate virtually. That said, JLABS @ Washington, D.C. is the hub for Blue Knight, so Allain and her team have their eyes open for approaches that could help us be better prepared for the next pandemic. 

“As we think about the next potential threat, how do we learn from where our gaps are and incubate companies that are working on technology to remove those challenges?” Allain said. 

Another Blue Knight company setting up shop at JLABS @ Washington, D.C. is Lab11 Therapeutics, which spun out of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. It is developing broad-spectrum antiviral drugs that could work in this pandemic and beyond. 

Besides diversity in geographic origin and in healthcare sectors, JLABS @ Washington, D.C. is prioritizing support of diverse entrepreneurs and founders. It’s not a new focus for JLABS, but something that it must keep chipping away at. 

RELATED: Eli Lilly chips $30M into VC fund aimed at minority-owned healthcare companies 

“It’s no secret: we know access to funding and important networks for both female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color is not improving,” Allain said. 

A study by RateMyVC and Diversity VC found that Black founders receive just 1% of venture capital funding, while Black female founders receive 0.2% of all funding, wrote Jackie Grant, Ph.D., a principal at Abingworth, in Nature Biotech last summer. 

JLABS is doing better, with 31% of its portfolio companies run by women CEOs and another 30% led by racial or ethnic minorities, Allain said. But the incubator won’t be resting on its laurels. 

“Some of the companies that are coming in are run by Black, first-time entrepreneurs, and I’m going to do everything I can to support them, whether that’s providing Big Pharma network connections, making connections through our investor hub to investors,” Allain said. “We need to support companies that haven’t been able to get support due to the way the system is.”