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A Knight’s Tale: JLABS @ Toronto Company Specific Biologics on what it means to be a part of the BLUE KNIGHT program


By now you may have heard of BLUE KNIGHT, a collaboration between Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS and BARDA. JLABS @ Toronto resident Specific Biologics, was one of the first companies to be selected for this program, which aims to stimulate innovation and incubation of technologies to improve health security and the world’s response to health threats and emerging infectious diseases.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, Specific Biologics decided to pivot and leverage their gene editing platform technology to create a potential solution for the next global pandemic. Through their platform, they hope to correct errors at the genetic level in cells inside the body.

This October, Allan Miranda, Regional Head of JLABS @ Toronto, hosted a fireside chat with Brent Stead, CEO of Specific Biologics, and Ashley Cecere, MS Biologist at BARDA. Read on to learn about what it means to be part of the Blue Knight program, as well as BARDA’s initiatives to support start-ups around the world. You can also watch the entire conversation in our On-Demand Webinar Library.


Allan Miranda: Tell me what excites you about being in the BLUE KNIGHT program, and what you're hoping to capitalize on by being part of one of the selected companies.

Brent Stead: I think we're most excited by having access to a network of experts who have done this before for other viruses, like Ebola or Dengue. Mentors at BARDA as well as at Johnson & Johnson have employed virus vaccines and therapeutics towards those diseases. We can specifically learn from them what's meaningful data they might want to see to advance this to a therapeutic. For example, what special considerations we must take as we navigate the regulatory path? We can also tap into the network itself to learn who to talk to when doing cell or animal models. It’s an opportunity to learn from the experts.

AM: Ashley, can you share some of the things that BARDA is doing to support start-ups globally?

Ashley: We establish public-private partnerships with companies around the world, including Canada, the UK, Australia, and others. We’ve been trying to stimulate innovation across all areas in Blue Knight. This is just one of the mechanisms by which we are trying to engage innovation and entrepreneurs in developing new technologies to address public health threats. We also have a division dedicated to innovative ideas, and that’s the Drive program.

Allan: What does a company need to do to become a part of the Blue Knight program?

Ashley: Applications are already open for the Blue Knight hub, which is in Washington, DC, as well as for Toronto, New York, and San Diego. If you want to learn more about Blue Knight, you can visit the Blue Knight page on the Johnson & Johnson Innovation website, and there are ways to engage there if you have any questions.

Allan: Brent,  you've talked a little bit about being part of Blue Knight. What are some of the milestones that you think the Blue Knight program can help you accelerate?

Brent: Right out of the gate off of our kickoff meeting, we walked through that with our mentor, and talked about what our meaningful milestones would be. Demonstrating the proof-of-concept on a relevant cell system and showing that this would work to eliminate the viral genome to levels that would be thought to translate into a benefit in the clinic. Then, secondly, translating that into an animal model that would be relevant for viral infections. So within six months, realistically starting some of that work within the animal model would be ambitious, but ideal, but we would want to be able to get that to show that we have a product that is going to be possible to translate into a clinical application.

Allan: Ashley, if a company is not located in Toronto or any of the Blue Knight hubs, can they still be part of the Blue Knight program?

Ashley: As of right now, we have applications open for the four physical JLABS locations. However, stay tuned for opportunities to engage by becoming a virtual Blue Knight company.

Allan: Do you need to be incorporated as a company to be part of the Blue Knight program?

Ashley: For the Blue Knight program, yes, an LLC is required, but we're happy to engage in any of those other ways like through educational programming or other opportunities. It's not a requirement to partner with BARDA, but it is a requirement for Blue Knight.

Allan: Brent, you mentioned that you believe that your technology can pivot to make an impact in COVID-19, which I think is hugely admirable. What about some of the other things that you have in your pipeline - how do those move forward? How are you balancing?

Brent: I think with the Blue Knight opportunity coming along, we now have an opportunity to try to advance this project quicker and in a more de-risked way so that we can still advance some of the other programs. And the good thing is, there's so much synergy between those programs that advancing any one of them, for example, on the delivery technology side, is that we're able to show that this works well in the COVID application. Our other programs are still going, but we're prioritizing activities to try to get to the key value inflection points and milestones. Has it has slowed it down a little bit, with COVID? Of course, but equally, we are really working hard to make sure we can keep going.

Allan: Another question on that - everybody is well aware that you're one of our brand-new Blue Knight companies. Any thoughts on how that messaging has helped you or how you intend to leverage that as you look for rounds of financing and when talking to investors?

Brent: I think what it helps to do is say that another group has had a look at our technology, pieces of our biotechnology, or our ability to generate new pieces of IP or technologies, and say that, yes, this seems compelling that we were accepted into the Blue Knight program. These are the experts, so we’re flattered that we could be part of this and that they’re recognizing that we have elements of our technologies that are going to be useful in their programs and that they said that this is something that they're looking for. We'll certainly be messaging that as we look at trying to get broader support.

Allan: Ashley – we’ve talked a lot about the Blue Knight program and one of the biggest drivers of value is the mentorship that you alluded to.  

Ashley: Once a company is selected as part of the Blue Knight program, we immediately identify a mentor here at BARDA. We engage across BARDA to find the most appropriate person that's available. We talk with companies based on what their level of comfort is, in terms of providing data or information. Based on the level of information, our mentors are able to provide the best recommendations possible. We let the companies take the lead on what's comfortable for them, and we don't push the envelope beyond their comfort level.

* The information provided in this fireside chat transcript is for informational purposes only. The fireside chat and this transcript were produced, in part, using tax dollars from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. All comments, information and opinions shared are those of the speaker(s) and neither Johnson & Johnson Innovation (“JJI”) nor its affiliates, are affiliated with nor endorses these third parties.  JJI is not responsible for any technology or products discussed herein and this content is not intended to influence the use, sale, recommendation, or promotion of these or any products or services of JJI, Johnson & Johnson or its affiliates.  JJI hereby expressly disclaims any and all guarantees, representations, warranties, or assurances made during this fireside chat and assumes no responsibility or liability, direct or indirect in relation to the information in this fire chat transcript.