Melinda Richter, JLABS

Melinda Richter
Leveling the playing field for biotech startups

Company: Johnson & Johnson
Title: Head of JLABS

Melinda Richter's path to the life sciences industry began on a hospital bed in Beijing, listening to a doctor explain that she would quite likely be killed by the bug bite she'd recently endured.

Back in 1996, as an executive at telecom giant Nortel, Richter was in China on business when she came down with a debilitating infection. Sent to an international clinic, she was told her ailment looked like meningitis, but doctors weren't sure, and anyway there was nothing they could do for her. The story was the same at a local Beijing hospital and later at a large medical center in Hong Kong: We don't know what you have but we don't think you're going to make it.

As a tech professional facing her own mortality, Richter was struck by what seemed like a baffling disparity between her industry and the one devoted to saving lives. How, in a world where the rapid progress of technology seems to upend life on Earth every few years, could it be impossible to tell a patient why she is sick?

In the end, Richter's company flew in a disease expert from the U.K. who accurately diagnosed her infection, prescribing the proper therapies and getting her back on her feet a few months later. But the experience of the bug bite forever changed Richter's ambitions, she said, setting her on a path to try to apply what she'd learned in the tech business to the world of healthcare innovation.

Richter is not a trained scientist and had no intentions of trying to found a biotech company of her own. Instead, her plan was to take what she did understand--business--and go from there. Digging into the world of early-stage drug development, Richter noted that upstart companies face daunting upfront costs before conducting their first experiment, requiring frequent equity raises that can leave even successful endeavors painfully diluted at the finish line.

Her idea: What if innovators could bend the curves of risk from the outset, reaching proof of concept on the cheap so that, when it's time for a Series A or pharma partnership, you've still got something left to sell? With that in mind she founded Prescience International, a firm devoted to designing biotech incubators that could level the playing field for early-stage companies. Contracts with California innovation hubs followed, and, in 2011, Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) came calling for help building out its San Diego incubator.

By 2013, Prescience had merged with J&J and what the drugmaker now calls JLABS, a series of R&D hubs around the U.S. where startups can rent space and focus on their science. As head of JLABS, Richter oversees a growing network of such centers, which offer a no-strings-attached opportunity to promising biotechs. Tenant companies aren't roped into equity deals or required to hand over options, J&J has said, leaving them free to negotiate with whomever they choose.

There are now four JLABS outposts online: centers in San Diego and Boston, plus two in the San Francisco area. Soon to come is a hub within Houston's Texas Medical Center and another in Toronto, each slated to open next year.

"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 told FierceBiotech in March. "These locations are beachheads that help enable and empower all the innovators in the area, not just those in JLABS."

And that, Richter said, is consistent with the plan she devised on that Beijing hospital bed nearly 20 years ago. -- Damian Garde (email | Twitter)

For more:
J&J heads to Toronto with incubation plans for up to 50 upstart biotechs
J&J picks the inaugural class for its Bay Area biotech incubator

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Melinda Richter, JLABS