JLABS @ Washington, DC: The Unique Innovation Hub That's Poised to Help Protect Us From Future Pandemics
It was a year ago this month that Johnson & Johnson Innovation first unveiled plans to launch a healthcare innovation facility in Washington, D.C., in collaboration with BARDA—also known as the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a component of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
BARDA's mission: the innovation, advanced research and development, acquisition and manufacturing of medical countermeasures—vaccines, drugs, therapeutics, diagnostic tools and non-pharmaceutical products—needed to protect us from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) health security threats, as well as pandemic influenza and emerging infectious diseases.
Today, in the midst of the current Covid-19 global pandemic, this forward-thinking partnership with BARDA could help provide new answers for patients and communities during this unprecedented time and beyond.
Part of Johnson & Johnson's mission as a company is to help find the best solutions to unmet healthcare needs around the world. JLABS @ Washington, DC will be tasked with incubating and nurturing budding start-ups with innovations that align with the company's strategic areas of focus in pharmaceutical, medical device and consumer development, as well as two other areas of need: children’s health and 21st-century health security threats. To help these companies bring their ideas to the next level, JLABS @ Washington, DC will build on existing collaborations with Children’s National Hospital and BARDA.
As the Covid-19 virus has spread across the world, Johnson & Johnson and BARDA have also mobilized quickly to together commit more than $1 billion to co-fund research, development and clinical testing for a potential Covid-19 vaccine. And both organizations have provided additional funding that will enable the expansion of their ongoing work to identify potential antiviral treatments against the novel coronavirus.
In advance of its official opening later this year, learn how the researchers and scientists at this newest JLABS aim to work toward helping transform the health and well-being of babies and children around the world, and help protect the communities we all live in—today and into the future.
The Home of Some of the Country's Biggest Health Experts—and Global Innovators
Think of JLABS as a matchmaking app for scientist-entrepreneurs and investors. A new company, big on ideas but short on capital, applies to take up residence at JLABS to secure work space, state-of-the-art labs, mentoring and other support.
Unlike entrepreneurs sponsored by other big businesses, the JLABS model is no-strings-attached: Start-ups retain their intellectual property and are free to leave or partner with whomever they choose, though it's worth noting that, to date, more than 150 companies have completed at least one agreement with Johnson & Johnson. The arrangement is both good business and good science—“great for us, and great for them,” says Sally Allain, Head at JLABS @ Washington, DC.
Walk into any JLABS facility around the globe, from Shanghai to San Diego, and the excitement is palpable: Amid the hushed concentration, there is genius at work and at play. JLABS @ Washington, DC will be no different, with 32,000 square feet of cutting-edge lab space housed on two floors of the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus within the historic Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus. A special innovation unit there will be dedicated to the advancement of medical countermeasures aimed at securing our nation from acts of CBRN assaults, pandemic influenza and emerging infectious diseases.
“There’s an unmet need to bring more medical products designed for and tested for children to the pediatric market,” says Kolaleh Eskandanian, Ph.D., Chief Innovation Officer at Children's National Hospital. “We can move the needle significantly and close the gap as much as possible.”
Many JLABS sites welcome big ideas surrounding any and all aspects of healthcare innovation. That there will now be a JLABS in the nation's capital, however, is no accident.
“D.C. is a hub of both science and regulatory expertise in these areas,” says Michelle McMurry-Heath, M.D., Ph.D. “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, as well as some of the nation’s leading research institutes, such as Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland, Georgetown and Virginia Tech … they’re all right here.”
That includes BARDA, whose goal, Allain says, "is to identify innovative potential solutions for all people—individuals, families, communities." And since medical solutions for adults don't always translate to children and their unique requirements, “we must also encourage the development of innovations through a lens of pediatric populations, so that the unmet needs of babies and children are addressed across the innovation pipeline too," she adds.
Rick Bright, Ph.D., BARDA Director and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, echoes her words.
“Our nation faces serious, evolving health security threats,” Bright says. “We are thrilled to continue our strategic partnership with JLABS, foster the culture of innovation within our nation’s capital and expand our pipeline of solutions to mount a rapid and effective response to threats like the current Covid-19 pandemic and help save lives in public health emergencies.”
In Search of the Next Great Healthcare Visionaries
One key way that JLABS finds its residents is through QuickFire Challenges—its own version of Shark Tank—that reward promising health and science visionaries with the aim of helping accelerate their innovations. During each challenge, entrepreneurs apply to receive awards that could include residency at a JLABS location, use of facilities customized to their needs, access to experienced company mentors and/or grant funding that can go as high as $1.5 million, split among recipients.
The first QuickFire Challenge, launched in partnership with BARDA, kicked off in 2018, with the theme of “reimagining respiratory protection.” It invited visionaries to submit ideas aimed at helping better protect the public from infectious agents and the threat of pandemics.
The awardee, Air99, is commercializing a patent-pending respirator that aims to fit, look and work better than conventional N99 pollution and flu masks. According to the company, the design conforms better to the wearer’s face for a tighter seal, has more surface area for less breathing resistance and features an adjustable harness for greater comfort.
The latest in the series is the JLABS @ Washington D.C. Children’s QuickFire Challenge, which is seeking visionaries in the fields of pediatric oncology, pediatric surgery and influenza, with a final application deadline of April 24. In addition to a total of up to $150,000 in grant funding, awardees will receive one year of residency at JLABS @ Washington, DC, mentorship from Johnson & Johnson experts and access to the Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS, ecosystem.
The results of being associated with JLABS speak for themselves.
“More than 630 companies have been selected and become a part of the JLABS portfolio, residing in one of our 12 JLABS sites around the globe,” says Allain. “Of those companies, 88% are still in business or have been acquired”—a higher rate of success, she notes, than start-up companies overall.
Partnering for a Healthier and Safer World
Allain—a self-proclaimed “science nerd” who began her career doing research at a San Diego biotech start-up before moving into operations & alliance management, and eventually strategy for Johnson & Johnson—and Dr. McMurry-Heath, a scientist and physician who’s spent time in both the public and private sectors, bring decades of expertise to help entrepreneurs navigate the road to commercialization and advancing their ideas.
As Allain staffs the new site and recruits for its freshman class of resident start-ups—there's room for up to 50 of them—she will not only be looking for the best science and technology, but also companies that are going to prosper working within the specialized BARDA innovation zone.
Whatever the final mix looks like, there's no doubt you’ll be hearing about many of them and their cutting-edge work in the years to come.
“You take 50 entrepreneurs, give them the resources and mentoring—and some of them are going to change lives,” Eskandanian says.