Johnson & Johnson to open JLabs virtual networking pod in Philadelphia

Johnson & Johnson is broadening access to its startup incubator program with a new remote networking hub, affectionately called the JPod, hosted by the University of Pennsylvania.

Opening Nov. 1 at the university’s Pennovation Center in Philadelphia, it will allow for video conferencing between JLabs entrepreneurs and their J&J gurus across the company’s global network, including developers of pharmaceuticals, medical devices and digital health technologies.

The first of its kind in the U.S., the JPod represents a smaller footprint compared to the other locations in Johnson & Johnson Innovation’s no-strings-attached support program, with Penn providing the startups with more tangible, hands-on assistance.

“They already have the lab space—which JLabs normally provides—but they were very keen to partner with us on the additional things that are a part of being in JLabs, which is the mentoring, the investing hub and the programming,” J&J’s Kate Merton told FierceMedTech.

“It literally looks like a giant space pod,” said Merton, who heads up JLabs in New York, and is responsible for its incubation activities along the Eastern Seaboard, including Boston and Philadelphia. “You go in there, and it has voice-activated cameras. It enables them to have these live and in-color conversations.”

UPenn's Pennovation Center
(Michael Moran)

Some of that programming includes J&J’s 12-month health tech course, announced earlier this year. Available to everyone within JLabs, the training examines the development of smart therapy delivery devices, mobile management apps and patient engagement programs, as well as how to use digital health applications to intercept and prevent disease.

It also explores the integration of technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain into healthcare—not only as final products unto themselves, but also their use in developing and testing drugs and devices—as well as solutions for dealing with payers and providers.

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But the end goal of the program is not just to help startups deliver new tech to the market, but to help disrupt the work of J&J itself, from within and without.

“Instead of giving them programming at their site where they just get to sit and listen, we're going to take them with us to some of our colleagues, so they get to understand how we're trying to disrupt ourselves with that technology,” Merton said. “They can then share what they're doing, and provide an opportunity for us to co-creatively think together.”

“We’re using it to provide resources from J&J to health technologists, and I think J&J is humble enough to know that we're going to get to learn from those entrepreneurs as well,” she said.

The company plans to open another JPod in Canada at the University of Alberta, and at least three others are in the works at other healthcare development hubs. They’ll join JLabs’ 13 international locations and innovation centers, including a full facility set to open in Shanghai next year.

According to a recent tabulation of the program’s impact, JLabs has helped its more than 450 companies secure more than $11.6 billion in financing and strategic partnerships over the past six years. Fourteen of its alums have gone public, while 88% of its companies are still in business or have been acquired.

Some those companies have gone on to be chosen for the Fierce 15, including Alector, Adicet Bio and BlackThorn Therapeutics.

In addition, over 26% of JLabs’ resident companies are led by women, and 23% are minority-led. Currently about a quarter of them boast a commercial product, while 26% are conducting human clinical trials.

As part of the Philadelphia JPod launch, J&J is holding a competition for $30,000 in grant funding, one year of residency at the Pennovation Center, and access to JLabs’ educational programs and mentoring. Submissions are due by Jan. 25, and will be judged based on their uniqueness, potential impact and the feasibility of their technology.