J&J picks the inaugural class for its Bay Area biotech incubator

Melinda Richter, head of J&J Innovation's JLABS

Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) has opened the doors of its new biotech incubator, bringing in its first 10 resident startups and hoping to galvanize the next generation of life sciences innovators.

The new facility, dubbed JLABS @South San Francisco, is a 30,000-square-foot mix of lab and office space with room for up to 50 startups, J&J said. Mirroring the company's flagship incubators in San Diego and Boston, the new facility is staffed by some of J&J's biotech brains, and PerkinElmer is on hand to provide equipment, education and support to the guest companies.

JLABS @South San Francisco's first occupants are 10 hand-picked upstarts, with 5 that came through J&J's application process and 5 that won the JLABS Quick Fire Challenge, in which entrants competed to win a year-long stint at the incubator. Combined, the group's work checks all the requisite boxes for biotech in 2015, with projects in immuno-oncology, gene therapy, Alzheimer's disease and microbiomics, for example.

Picking the winners, J&J focused on "what every VC would look for," JLABS head Melinda Richter said: technology that targets an important medical need, great science and a top team. But Richter's group paid equal attention to the diversity, in every sense, of its inaugural class, making a concerted effort to mix up therapeutic areas, treatment modalities and stages of development.

"You've got young scientists with first-time startups, but we also decided to have some seriously experienced serial founders and heavyweights come in, so that we have this great mix of dynamic new talent and experienced wisdom," she said. "And that's really what the community is about."

The companies are:

  • Ab Initio Biotherapeutics, engineering proteins for immuno-oncology;
  • Afferent Pharmaceuticals, which is developing small-molecule treatments for respiratory, urological and pain conditions;
  • Alkahest, which is studying factors in the blood with an eye on aging and neurodegenerative disease;
  • Applied Molecular Transport, a J&J collaborator developing oral treatments for autoimmune ailments;
  • Audentes Therapeutics, a gene therapy biotech targeting rare diseases;
  • Cortexyme, focused on Alzheimer's disease;
  • Driver BioEngineering, working in the promising field of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) therapeutics;
  • EpiBiome, a microbiomics biotech;
  • Goleini, a second gene therapy player focused on glaucoma;
  • and Mindera, a diagnostics startup developing skin-based tests for cancer and dermatological conditions.

The South San Francisco operation is JLABS' fourth incubator to come online, following the 2012 opening of a San Diego outpost and the later additions of the MIT-partnered Boston location and a San Francisco operation run alongside the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences. Next year, JLABS is slated to cut the ribbon on a 50-startup foray within Houston's Texas Medical Center.

With each expansion of the program, J&J stresses that JLABS offers a no-strings-attached opportunity to promising biotechs, and qualifying companies aren't roped into equity deals or required to hand over options, leaving them free to negotiate with whomever they choose. A few JLABS tenants have already inked financing or licensing deals, including Alector, Bell Biosystems and Araxes Pharma.

"As we look out into the industry, what we're trying to do is take down the hurdles that stop great science from becoming great patient solutions," Richter said. "These locations are beachheads that help enable and empower all the innovators in the area, not just those in JLABS."

The incubator network is part of the sweeping J&J Innovation program, through which the pharma giant has launched a string of global deal-recon operations, setting up shop in Boston, London, San Francisco, Shanghai and elsewhere. Unlike JLABS, the J&J Innovation Centers are designed specifically to scout for collaborations, potential license agreements and buyout targets, making equity investments in its partner companies along the way.

- read the announcement