Johnson & Johnson Innovation aims for disruption

August 8, 2015 ctheodoropulos

Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Boston, has high expectations for itself and its partners. “We’re looking for ideas that will make a tremendous difference in patients’ lives, not merely incremental progress,” said Robert G. Urban, PhD, head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Boston. To do that, “we take advantage of the deep science emerging around us to develop bold platforms that make a big difference.

Robert G. Urban, Ph.D., head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Boston

Robert G. Urban, PhD, Head, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Boston

“We see ourselves as an investment team for Johnson & Johnson. We direct financial and intellectual resources in specific areas” that not only align with the company’s interests but that have a realistic potential, once commercialized, to become game-changers.

In making those decisions, the scientific and management teams are as important as the science. “We strongly emphasize collaboration,” Urban said.

Innovation, he elaborates, is about having the right people and the right conversations that inspire them. “Innovation is about understanding something really well—sometimes for the first time—that leads to an understanding of, for example, a mechanism of action or a way to intervene that was previously impossible.”

Johnson & Johnson’s collaboration with Tissue Regeneration Systems and DePuy Synthes Products is one example. This venture is developing 3-D printed, patient-specific resorbable implants for orthopedic oncology and large bone defects in trauma. “These products may prevent people from losing their limbs,” he said.

The innovation center also is fostering projects involving the microbiome, considering it a strategic area of interest. “Researchers, historically, haven’t paid the microbiome much attention but it makes a tremendous contribution to our wellness,” Urban said. “The new discoveries about the microbiome and implications in clinical conditions are coming out in leading journals monthly.” One of Johnson & Johnson’s earliest forays into this emerging field of research was a collaboration and subsequent in-licensing of a preclinical candidate for a potential microbiome therapeutic from Vedanta Biosciences to target inflammatory bowel disease.

Cross-fertilization fosters innovation
When there is so much talent in such close proximity, as in Boston, “you almost don’t have to book meetings,” Urban joked. “They happen impromptu.”

Of course, actual meetings are booked, but it’s also true that cross-fertilization among disciplines and exchanges of ideas occur naturally in hubs of innovation. The luxury of working among concentrations of innovators helps J&J remain focused on the most novel, potentially disruptive, advances for commercialization.

J&J supports entrepreneurship
“Entrepreneurs are fundamental to the life sciences industry. We make it part of our mission to support entrepreneurship,” Urban said, “so supporting BioPharm America™—which brings entrepreneurs together in Boston each September—is a privilege we take very seriously.”

As one example, a Johnson & Johnson Innovation senior leader is one of three judges for a BioPharm America pitch session for startup companies. Making successful pitches, Urban said, comes down to three things:
1. “Quickly demonstrate what, in particular, happened that convened this group to act,” he said. That may be a new discovery or capability that enables something that wasn’t feasible before.
2. Show how this innovation will be transformative. “Talk about specifics without overwhelming the audience with the science,” Urban advised. Demonstrate why this innovation has potential and why your team is uniquely qualified to develop this particular idea.
3. Clearly tell potential investors what evidence is needed that will help to prove that your innovation is not only feasible, but that it will be an amazing advancement.

The future of partnering
Successful collaborations begin with pitches, but the determinants of successful relationships often become evident later, as the deals are inked. True collaborations are becoming more ubiquitous and more hands-on. For example, he said, “we’re seeing shared work plans and shared resources. Today’s partnering agreements are bringing people together to work in ways that accomplish things they couldn’t do individually.

“One of the keys to successful development lies in how closely we can work with innovators,” Urban pointed out. “Very senior technical people at Johnson & Johnson Innovation are allocated to the teams that work closely with innovators.” These experts are available to Johnson & Johnson’s partners as resources to help them develop the projects and data efficiently and effectively.

One of the ways Johnson & Johnson collaborates with innovators is through the “entrepreneur-in-residence” program.

In that program, individual entrepreneurs who, typically, have founded or worked with a few life sciences companies work in Johnson & Johnson Innovation Centers on a daily basis. These entrepreneurs-in-residence could be focused on pharmaceutical, medical devices and consumer products. As Urban said, “We look for entrepreneurs interested in working in overlapping research areas but, most importantly, they must be focused on creating amazing businesses creating transformative products.”

By working closely with Johnson & Johnson during the early development phases, these serial entrepreneurs gain deeper insights into the needs of potential customers and payers, leveraging Johnson & Johnson’s depth and breadth of expertise to not only shape the projects but to guide them in segmenting potential markets to find their best niches. “When it’s time to raise money and meet investors, we’re first in line,” Urban said.

Entrepreneur-in-residence programs are in place in Johnson & Johnson’s Innovation Centers located in Boston, California and London. A similar program in Shanghai is hosted by Johnson & Johnson’s CRO partner WuXi AppTec to develop products for the China market. “We also have visiting scientist programs for startups,” Urban added.

Janssen Research & Development LLC, one of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies, announced the establishment of the Disease Interception Accelerator (DIA) earlier this year. The group’s first venture is focused on type 1 diabetes and recently established a research collaboration with Washington University and immunologist Emil Unanue, MD. “This puts our disease accelerator team into a close collaboration with his lab in St. Louis,” Urban said. “The project is designed to define the molecular nature of disease at its earliest moment and thus attempt to intercept disease before it becomes clinically established.”

The DIA will look at other projects to intercept additional diseases in the future.

Global innovation strategy
“It’s been an interesting couple of years, seeing how our global investment strategy has worked effectively in various contexts,” Urban said. Johnson & Johnson has a London innovation team that works throughout Europe and Israel, and recently launched a Nordic Innovation Hub at the Karolinska Institute to accelerate translational projects in Johnson & Johnson’s areas of strategic interest. In the US, Johnson & Johnson has innovation centers in Boston and in Menlo Park to work with innovators in their broad regions.

“We’re very effective in finding interesting innovators across our landscapes,” Urban acknowledged. Johnson & Johnson Innovation has made more than 200 investments since 2013. Of those, 17 were announced in June.

Leaders from the Boston center have made nearly a dozen investments in New York, in addition to those in the Midwest and the immediate Boston area. “It’s very encouraging to have a broader remit than just the cities in which we live,” he said.

BioPharm America 2015, including Biotech Startup Day sponsored by Johnson & Johnson Innovation, meets in Boston September 15–17.

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