ew York City is a hotbed for everything from theater to finance. But what you might not know is that among the slew of industries thriving under the Big Apple’s bright lights, Manhattan is also an epicenter of scientific discovery.
New York ranks #2 in the nation after Boston for National Institutes of Health awards—totaling $1.4 billion!—and it’s home to the largest bioscience workforce in the country, as well as nine major academic medical centers.
Yet despite this wealth of talent, the city lacks the resources to help researchers translate their discoveries into impactful products. One reason? Real estate commands top dollar and is primarily dedicated to other businesses, making it hard for up-and-coming entrepreneurs in the science sector to gain a foothold.
Enter Johnson & Johnson Innovation, which has just opened its latest health sciences incubator: JLABS @ NYC, a 30,000-square-foot facility housed at the New York Genome Center (NYGC) (shown at right) in SoHo that will be home to about 30 fledgling healthcare start-ups.
“We believe this will help fill a gap with key resources biomed innovators need to thrive, and reduce the barriers for growth in New York City’s ecosystem,” says, Global Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS.
JLABS @ NYC also holds promise for fueling growth in the region as a whole.
"The ever-evolving life science sector is discovering solutions to the most pressing problems of our time, helping to cure disease and save lives around the world," states New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. "New York is poised to be a global leader in this industry, and this new, vital JLABS incubator will be the catalyst that pushes our state into the forefront of this exciting field ... establishing New York as the home of discoveries that will drive the economy and create a better future for all."
From San Diego to Shanghai, there are nine other JLABS around the world, and like these satellite locations, JLABS @ NYC plans to house pharmaceutical, medical device and consumer health companies—as well as focus on supporting businesses in the burgeoning field of healthcare innovation known as “health tech.”
Why the Future Is in Connected Healthcare
Technology has revolutionized nearly every facet of our lives: the way we travel, communicate, shop and much, much more. Now, medicine is the latest industry on the verge of a technological overhaul.
Health tech is the infusion of technology into various dimensions of healthcare, which manifests as everything from virtual reality skills training for surgeons to high-level digital data analysis that can help governments rapidly identify and respond to disease outbreaks.
New York City has cultivated the perfect conditions for the health tech space to take root. Not only is it a thriving research center and #2 in the country for venture capital funding in high tech, but life science innovation also has the support of the local government—Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed to investing $500 million over the next 10 to 25 years into the sector. What’s more, as the country’s financial capital, there are myriad opportunities for entrepreneurs to connect with investors.
With that in mind, JLABS @ NYC has devised a health tech program that focuses on four key areas, including mobile wellness management, which enables people to monitor their health through things like virtual doctor’s visits and wearables.
“Just imagine how much easier life would be for someone with diabetes if a sensor in the back of their smart watch picked up on the change in glucose in their skin, eliminating the need for a painful finger prick,” says, Head of JLABS @ NYC. Merton's 15 years of experience in the healthcare industry—spanning everything from R&D to disruptive innovation—and background in blockchain and artificial intelligence make her the perfect fit to run this new health tech hub.
Many innovations fail—not because they didn’t have the right intent or mission, but because the healthcare industry is so complex.
Two other focus areas: "smart devices" that have the potential to replace invasive medical procedures, such as a device that could foster bone growth through digital impulses instead of surgery; and innovations that can sense imperceptible changes in the body to help detect the very early stages of a disease, like identifying altered speech patterns linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Finally, JLABS @ NYC will also target ways to help improve consumer engagement and the transfer of information between healthcare providers and patients. For example, this could mean developing technologies that would allow people to easily share lifestyle information—such as diet and sleeping patterns—with their physicians in order to receive a more accurate health assessment and diagnosis, potentially even in real time.
The opportunities are tremendous, but there are also pitfalls to navigate.
“Many innovations fail—not because they didn’t have the right intent or mission, but because the healthcare industry is so complex,” Richter explains, adding that entrepreneurs often aren't aware of the extensive regulatory requirements that need to be met to get a product to market. JLABS @ NYC is dedicated to helping start-ups manage these complexities.
Meet Some of the Entrepreneurs Who Call JLABS @ NYC Home
Thirteen years ago, Caleb Hernandez, D.O., FACEP, was a resident in the pediatric emergency room at Brooklyn’s Maimonides Medical Center when a child was rushed in because his heart had stopped beating. Dr. Hernandez began resuscitation, and instructed his team of nurses to give the little boy medication. “Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that a nurse was about to give him a massive overdose,” Dr. Hernandez says. In the nick of time, he stopped her before she injected the patient with 10 times the correct amount of meds.
Reflecting on that near tragedy, Dr. Hernandez realized that the medical space is set up for accidental overdoses because of a communication gap: Doctors work in milligrams (units of mass), while nurses use milliliters, which is a volume measurement. “We’re speaking two different languages,” he says. So he came up with an idea to create color coded syringes to simplify how much of a drug to give a child based on age and weight. Studies conducted by his company, Certa Dose, says Dr. Hernandez, support that this system can virtually eliminate dosing mistakes.
Certa Dose is just one of the companies that have been awarded a yearlong residency at JLABS @ NYC after entering the Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS Advancing the Safe Use of Healthcare Products QuickFire Challenge. As part of the application process, entrepreneurs needed to prove that they were moving the needle on medical safety, and they had to lay out a detailed business model showing how they planned to get that innovation out into the world.
Now, after being chosen for the residency, the start-up has incredible resources at its disposal to help bring Certa Dose to the next level.
JLABS @ NYC works from a capital efficient model, which aims to help start-ups use as little of their funds as possible to bring their innovation to market. The facility covers major business expenses—such as pricey lab equipment like centrifuges, freezers and 3-D printers; health and safety inspections; and administrative duties.
“We also provide insight and programming for companies on what it means to be in the health tech space, and how to work within healthcare systems, giving them training on legal and regulatory aspects,” Merton adds. “Because Johnson & Johnson has such strong relationships with providers and payers, entrepreneurs will get the benefit of exposure to those areas.”
These resources, particularly the advanced laboratory, will come in handy for another QuickFire Challenge winner, Envisagenics, which applies RNA splicing analysis and artificial intelligence to drastically speed up R&D for cancer therapies.
“We're at a point where we're ready to start validating our findings through cell cultures,” explains co-founder and CTO Martin Akerman, Ph.D. “Instead of having to find a collaborator to gain access to a lab, we’ll now have one in-house at JLABS @ NYC to use and help us progress quickly.”
Supporting Start-ups Through Another Important Means—Mentoring
Perhaps even more valuable than supporting start-ups with the day-to-day nuts and bolts involved in running a business, JLABS also offers JPALS, a mentoring program in which Johnson & Johnson employees lend their expertise to start-ups enrolled in the JLABS program.
“JLABS has hooked us up with people who have a breadth of experience that is worth more than gold, like Dr. Ed Kuffner, the Chief Medical Officer for Johnson & Johnson Consumer," Dr. Hernandez says. "We’d have to pay consultants with similar knowledge tens of thousands of dollars. Our JLABS mentors can help us direct our energy so that our products will have the most impact.”
And that impact is tangible. As of its fifth anniversary in 2017, JLABS has seen 312 companies come through the doors. Participating start-ups have had five IPOs and eight acquisitions. Take Adhesys Medical, which creates polyurethane-based medical adhesives that can be used both on the skin and inside the body. After a year spent at JLABS @ TMC, the start-up was acquired by a pharmaceutical company based in Germany.
The innovation incubator also organizes networking events with venture capitalists, investment firms and banks. “As a start-up, you're not as trusted, so fewer investors want to take a risk with you—being accepted into the JLABS program is a powerful endorsement,” Dr. Hernandez says. “Johnson & Johnson connects us with the right people, and gives us a stamp of approval.”
It's a no-strings-attached relationship, too: As with other JLABS, companies aren’t bound to partnering with Johnson & Johnson once their residency ends.
“Allowing resident companies to retain their intellectual property gives entrepreneurs maximum freedom and flexibility to advance their ideas,” Richter says. “Our goal is to catalyze and accelerate innovation in critical areas in order to make an impact for patients around the world.”