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A Conversation with Sharon Chan, Head of JLABS @ Shanghai


We recently sat down with Sharon Chan, head of JLABS @ Shanghai, ahead of the incubator’s grand opening on June 27th. In her role, Sharon is responsible for setting the strategic direction and overseeing all operational activities for JLABS in Shanghai, as well as implementing educational programming and finding innovative companies across the Asia Pacific region.

Sharon joined JLABS from Aeras in Beijing, where she helped launch that office for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She is also a board member of Right to Thrive in Kenya and a committee member of the China Oxford Scholarship Fund in Shanghai and Beijing. Sharon also teaches at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in the Department of Applied Biology and Chemical Technology.

Below is a condensed and edited version of her podcast interview below with Caroline Baratz.

Caroline Baratz: Can you tell us a little bit about your role as the Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation JLABS @ Shanghai?

Sharon Chan: JLABS is something different. It’s pretty unique and is the brainchild of Melinda Richter. So, she comes from Silicon Valley and she's totally transformed the way I look at healthcare. She's taught me that a great idea can come from anywhere, but when an idea comes from outside an organization, it faces so many more hurdles. And these hurdles are even greater for the life sciences sector.

And a great example of this is the differences in commercialization time between technology  and technology in healthcare. JLABS aims to provide the solution. It's just one tool from Johnson & Johnson Innovation's toolbox to help create innovation. JLABS aims to provide a capital efficient and flexible model so entrepreneurs can take their great ideas of today and work to transform them into the breakthrough products of tomorrow.

Essentially, JLABS is a no-strings-attached incubator, and provides coworking spaces that have offices as well as labs. These labs are for researchers to do big science, such as biology, chemistry, design prototypes, and test their concepts. You can work on 3D printing, you can work on wound healing, you can build an electronic pill box to monitor compliance. You can design apps to look at your skin and how they work with beauty products and so on.

But JLABS is more than providing infrastructure and a place to connect and a place to work. We also connect our in-house experts with entrepreneurs, leveraging Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies talented workforce for a mentoring program that we call “JPALS,” so that entrepreneurs, from day one, are offered support on thinking about how to make their idea into a real product that someone would be willing to use. We also provide small companies access to investors by asking venture capitalists to come in and do open office hours.

And we aim to give small companies the resources of a big company. That could mean access to preferential pricing to buy chemicals, software programs and so on that will hopefullytranslate into cost savings for them. And of course, we provide them with the programming and our communication platforms. All in all, JLABS aims to remove the obstacles that entrepreneurs might face. Industry needs innovation, small nimble teams, and cost savings, in my opinion. Entrepreneurs need infrastructure, capital and expertise. Both the healthcare industry and innovators need each other. They need to work together. And that's exactly how JLABS proudly aims to tackle the world's biggest problems.

As Head of JLABS @ Shanghai, I have the awesome responsibility to help build and create this for China, and to give entrepreneurs in Shanghai this opportunity. It's a delicate, sleepless, and complicated task, but I'm helping to build Johnson & Johnson Innovation's world-largest JLABS to date. It's 4,400 square meters and located in Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park in Pudong. So, if you're an entrepreneur and have a great idea, or if you're a VC that has an interest and passion for early stage transformational research, or you're from another biotech pharma or healthcare tech company, I would love to hear from you. My call to action is – let's work together.            

Caroline: What an amazing call to action that is. Changing the world is no small feat, but I think you're well positioned to do so. Are there any initiatives at J&J Innovation or JLABS that are particularly exciting to you right now?

Sharon: JLABS @ Shanghai aims to accommodate startups across all fields in Pharma, medical device, and consumer. Health tech is a growing, cool space in healthcare. So, imagine smart devices that deliver drugs to patients, or how about using technology to intercept and prevent disease, such as a device that you could blow into that could tell you whether you had lung cancer or not.           

And it's also about developing smarter, faster, and more accurate devices and mobile wellness monitoring. All these examples and more are just some of the many ideas that startups can be working on within JLABS.

Asia Pacific itself is such an exciting place to be for healthcare. With rapid growth and increasing demand for health care innovation, we're a huge region. We've got rapidly growing economies. We've got a growing demand for quality healthcare that's really driven by urbanization, a growing middle class, and aging populations. And Shanghai is fast becoming a global leader in healthcare innovation.

Caroline: What are you excited about for this work? What are you passionate about?

Sharon: I have two passions. The first passion is people – always establishing collaborations and partnerships and developing businesses. These are elements that probably have been core to every job I've had in my career and which I hope will be also a huge success factor for me at JLABS, and creating networks is what we're all about at JLABS. I've spent my entire career networking, connecting, working across government, academia, industry regulators, not for profits, hospitals, health care workers, and patients. I've learned through experience that making these connections is critical to building a strong life science ecosystem. My focus at JLABS @ Shanghai is to catalyze connections between these key players and to build an even stronger healthcare innovation ecosystem in Asia Pacific. The future is here, and I'm nearly one year into my role. I'm really excited about transforming JLABS @ Shanghai into a powerful gateway for innovation in the region.           

My other passion is global public health, making a meaningful difference in the lives of people around the world every day. And that's how I've been able to pursue this, both in my recent role as head of Asia and China and at my previous role at Aeras, with the Gates Foundation and my degree in Public Health. And of course, working with the entrepreneurs at Johnson & Johnson innovation - JLABS.

Working at JLABS, I'm in touch with all sectors. Everything from pharma, medical device, consumer health technologies, and that's where I've been able to utilize my background in biochemistry, my Ph.D., my MBA, and even my MPH. And that's why I'm really excited and I can't wait for June 27th when we be up to open the doors of JLABS @ Shanghai.