Fierce JPM Week: Johnson & Johnson's JLABS—Taming the beast, while letting it roam the world

JLABS has grown into a massive organization that spans the globe and is helping big ideas from small beginnings get off the ground.

The life sciences incubator, originally created by Johnson & Johnson, now has 13 locations around the world, predominately in the U.S. but now also in Europe and Asia. This is made up of 777 companies, which have done (publicly) $58 billion worth of deals, and also includes 44 IPOs and 35 acquisitions.

When I described this sprawling network as a “beast” to Melinda Richter, global head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS, during our Fierce JPM Week executive interview, she said: “I've never heard it described as a beast before,” but when looking through what it’s become, added, “in the scheme of things, yeah, I guess you could say it’s a beast.”

But how can you tame such a behemoth and keep it working under the original form of intent while nurturing a JLABS culture? “As [JLABS] grew, I realized the most important point of all of that was purpose, and that we all have this central philosophy that bonded us together.

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“And for us, that's not just that science is everywhere, and we want to access it, and we want to cultivate it, and we want to accelerate it. But really, science is the way we're going to help patients, we're going to extend people's lives, we're going to make their lives better.”

But science works at a breakneck speed: the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how quickly the best R&D needs to be to get off the mark. Richter says that early-stage work has always been a key component for the network and can show who is worthy of being a JLABS alumni.

“The bottom line is they need to get started quickly,” Richter explains. “They need to get started efficiently with as little capital outlay as possible to get to their next milestone, to either prove out their technology or to get a running start.”

That’s because of the opportunity brought by the JLABS model. Those adopted under it can quickly access labs full of millions of dollars of equipment, and an operations team and a business service team that take care of their day-to-day activity “so you can focus on science.”

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They also get access to partners and JLABS negotiates not only a discount for those services, but also access to J&J’s resources. So every company gets an expert from J&J, who's there to be almost like a R&D leader and advise on next steps.  

“And we're here to support you on that journey,” Richter says. “No strings attached, you can partner with anybody, at the end of the day, we're here to help you be successful. Because at the end of the day, our purpose around patients is what matters.”

But J&J isn’t resting on its laurels. “There’s always more to come,” says Richter. “The grass never sits idle under our feet,” and there’s some big news expected in the coming months, though she’s staying mum on details for that.

One of the current big focuses for JLABS is however focused on the need for health security, health empowerment, and health equity.

“So if we think about COVID-19, for example, we'll see that investment in our health and our health security is the best defense of our countries, of our people, of our economy,” Richter says.

She says that the taxpayer-backed R&D center Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) “has been an incredible partner for all of us whether we knew it or not." They began talking to BARDA about creating a partnership to get access to early-stage innovators five years ago.

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“And at the time, [BARDA] showed me this video how a pandemic could quickly spread around the world. And I said, you guys are crazy, that is never going to happen in our lifetime. And they said, well, that's nice, but we have to be prepared anyway," Richter said.

The deal was penned in early 2019, with neither party knowing that a few months later, the whole world was going to be hit with a major pandemic in COVID-19. That was a major eye-opener.

“And we now need to take that preparedness to a whole another level,” Richter said.

Another major factor for JLABS is diversity in health and leadership. Richter said they have been tracking diversity across the JLABS portfolio and have found that out of 777 companies, 32% are women-led and 30% are ethnic minority led. This compares to an industry average of 1% and 8%.

"What we want to do is, shine a brighter light on that and start to change the conversation," Richter said.