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Breaking new ground on innovation: The debut of JLABS @ Toronto

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When Melinda Richter, Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS, cut the ribbon on the company’s first health sciences incubator in San Diego, in 2012, she couldn’t have imagined that in just four years, she’d be unveiling her sixth JLABS facility across the border in Canada.

The goal of the Toronto-based health sciences research center and business incubator: Provide start-ups innovating in the pharmaceutical, medical device and consumer health space with access to state-of-the-art equipment, lab space and funding opportunities—so that innovators can stop worrying about early-stage business costs and get to work developing their products.

“In the life science industry, you have to spend millions on infrastructure, equipment and operations before you even turn the lights on,” explains Richter. “And even then it can take eight to 12 years and billions of dollars to actually get a medical product to market.”

And that’s where JLABS comes in.

“Our goal is to lessen the risk, the investment and time it takes for someone to turn an idea into a company that could have a positive impact for patients around the world,” says Richter.

Where it’s located

JLABS @ Toronto is the first international JLABS location, and the result of a collaboration between the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, the Ontario Government, the University of Toronto, the MaRS Discovery District and Johnson & Johnson Innovation.

This unique fusion of academic, corporate and government support helps situate JLABS @ Toronto at the forefront of health innovation in a city that’s already home to cutting-edge academic hospitals and such world-class research institutes as the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation, the Ontario Brain Institute and Sunnybrook Research Institute, a fully affiliated research and teaching hospital with the University of Toronto.

The new JLABS @ Toronto facility will be housed in a 40,000-square-foot space of the West Tower within the city’s MaRS Discovery District, one of the largest urban innovation hubs in the world that currently supports some 1,000 companies working in health, clean tech, and information and communication technology.

“The arrival of JLABS @ Toronto will significantly expand the resources and networks available to the health and life sciences community at MaRS and the region, in general,” says Dr. Ilse Treunicht, CEO of the MaRS Discovery District. “We now have a critical mass of high-caliber young companies that are ready to take their transformative technologies and health solutions to global markets—they need access to talent, partners, customers and capital. The timing is perfect.”

This is all about creating community. And you do that not only by being there but by providing value to that community.
Melinda Richter, Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS

What makes it unique

The Toronto offshoot will be one of the first JLABS spaces to feature a device and digital prototype lab, in addition to wet lab units, research space and office modules.

The prototype lab will add elements of advanced engineering to research in biology and chemistry, allowing for a deeper convergence of technologies and collaboration across disciplines.

JLABS @ Toronto will also provide tenants with an operations team tasked with helping to manage day-to-day activities, from permits and licensing to facility maintenance. And a business services team will help connect entrepreneurs to potential funding partners.

Who will innovate there

Once JLABS @ Toronto opens its doors this spring, the goal is to welcome up to 50 resident companies across various sectors, including consumer, pharmaceutical, medical device and digital health.

Applicants need to be focused on targeting an important unmet medical need, spanning oncology, immunology, neuroscience, infectious diseases, and cardiovascular and metabolic disorders. Medical device and consumer health care entrepreneurs can also apply.

JLABS is also offering the JLABS @ Toronto Quick Fire Challenge, which will award up to four companies with one year of free access to bench and workstation space, as well as membership to BIOTECanada, the country’s national biotech industry association, and the Ontario Bioscience Innovation Organization (OBIO). [Interested companies can apply at]


How it’s helping the community

In addition to working with Ontario leaders to establish the province as a nexus of medical and pharmaceutical innovation, JLABS @ Toronto will offer local entrepreneurs access to the expertise of collective JLABS sites and the support of the family of Johnson & Johnson Innovation organizations.

“This is all about creating community,” says Richter. “And you do that not only by being there but by providing value to that community.”

Part of that value, she explains, will come from ongoing educational programs that JLABS @ Toronto will offer—from opportunities to hear industry leaders offer their perspectives to practical workshops designed to help entrepreneurs build skills and capabilities, like how to negotiate a terms sheet or create an executive summary.

Additionally, JLABS @ Toronto will host a “meet with” series, where local innovators will be able to meet with venture capital firms, angel networks, granting agencies and other potential investment partners.

“It’s important to bring those partners to the table,” says Richter, “to connect people with technology looking for funding with people with funding looking for tech.”

When it debuts

Construction on the new facility should be completed in April, with a grand opening scheduled for May 2016.

Richter is eager to show off the new space to the public: “Each JLABS site has a very futuristic flair to it—and the one in Toronto is going to blow people away.”

According to Richter, each JLABS facility is designed with today’s eighth grader in mind.

“We want to be so modern that, by the time an eighth grader graduates, we’ll still be relevant,” she says. “After all, if you work in a futuristic space today, you can begin to imagine being able to find tomorrow’s solutions.”

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