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A Leadership Perspective From China on Responding to COVID-19


The world is changing right before our eyes. Although we don’t know all the ways that the world will be different after COVID-19, we know that there is hope.

Sharon Chan, Head of JLABS @ Shanghai, was one of the first within Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS to navigate the challenges of COVID-19 for the 4,400-square-meter incubator facility she leads, which dozens of life science and healthcare start-ups call home. She led the way on how to respond safely and efficiently to ensure that while staying healthy, JLABS companies could keep innovating.

We asked Sharon about her experience leading JLABS @ Shanghai at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.


How have you been able to support your team and the resident companies?

The JLABS model goes beyond physical infrastructure that we provide. Our resident companies consist of 40% international companies from the US, Canada, Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia and Belgium. When the initial shutdown occurred, JLABS provided much needed direction towards resources locally, regionally and internationally.    We were also able to leverage the knowledge that a large organization like Johnson & Johnson has accessible such as global security, global health services, facilities management and environment, heath and safety, and then share with our entrepreneurs. In China, Johnson & Johnson has 10,000 employees and a multitude of specialized departments, but starts-ups may not have the same level capability to have experts in all these fields.  We also ramped up communications to resident company CEOs, to make sure they were safe and sound, so they could focus on other areas such as partnerships and fund-raising, connecting them to venture capital firms, or to internal mentors, our JPAL program within Johnson & Johnson. Colleagues at the Asia Pacific Innovation Center were also really supportive and ensured business discussions continued as usual with calls made via Skype, Zoom and WeChat.  Our mission was to make sure no CEO felt alone.

During this critical time, JLABS is supporting our innovator community with a Financial Relief Program for resident companies who suffer economic and/or financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. The aim is to reduce financial burden for startups to preserve business continuity through this crisis, so that they can either refocus efforts to address the current crisis or continue to drive other, potentially life-changing health solutions for people around the world.

On a personal note, this may have been one of the toughest leadership challenge I’ve had to face in my career. But with the right team and mission, everything is possible.   We can do it!  We can come out stronger than we were before!

What has the experience been like to see the companies work on answers to the very challenge that disrupted their lives?

It feels good.  Really good.  I’m proud to be part of building an ecosystem that puts patients and consumers lives first.   The CEOs are my heroes from the sacrifices they’ve made to become entrepreneurs, to the risks they take in their careers, and to their 24/7 passion and commitment to science, I’m humbled to know them.  As a company that wants to advance human health, I couldn’t think of a better time to relate to this than now.

How has this crisis impacted resident company CEOs?

We have founders from various different backgrounds.  Some CEOs are serial entrepreneurs, others our first timers, some are scientists while some are much younger and straight out of college.  All have GRIT – the passion, perseverance, and commitment to see things through.   Even during the outbreak, they never stopped working.  Actually, in some cases, with no commuting during the lock down period, some became even more efficient!


How will this crisis change for good the way we do science?
Being in quarantine, self-isolation, staying at home for an extended period of time, really allows all of us to reflect on what matters most.   For me, I think it emphasizes the need for collaboration.   From Johnson & Johnson’s multiprong approach of vaccine development, new therapeutics and access programs, progress would not be made with having partnerships such as those from universities, other biotechs and pharma, NGOs and Governments.

A great example is Johnson & Johnson’s collaboration to accelerate the development of a vaccine for COVID-19. Building on the groundbreaking science and scalable production platforms we already have in place from our pioneering work on Ebola, Zika, and HIV, the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson have worked tirelessly on accelerated development of a safe and effective vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

We expect human clinical studies of the lead vaccine candidate to initiate, at the latest, by September 2020, and anticipate the first batches of a COVID-19 vaccine could be available for emergency use authorization in early 2021, a substantially accelerated timeframe in comparison to the typical vaccine development process.

What are some of the ways you’ve seen the JLABS community come together during COVID-19?

We’re determined to build a world class incubator in Shanghai.  Having come off a Grand Opening last year, I know the team members well.  We’ve laughed and cried together, and I know each person’s strengths.  After all the work we have put in since June, we’re not going to give-up and let things fall apart.

When it came to responding to the COVID-19 situation - a time of uncertainty, ambiguity, and a fast-moving environment - it was like being in the month of May and June in 2019 preparing for our Grand Opening. We had matured from that experience to be able to handle COVID-19 calmly and had learned how to work together as a team to deliver and execute.

We’re going to win this battle and fight hard. The Johnson & Johnson Credo has played a critical role in our decision making and continues to do so.

This time around, I’m so proud of the team for their collaboration, commitment and determination to help.

How did we work to ensure (to the best of our ability) business continuity?

Communication – knowing how to push things along, who’s on the team, knowing where to get information, thinking of always our customer (residents) and ensuring our partners, the Shanghai Municipal Government, the Pudong New Area Government, and the Shanghai Pharma Engine Company, were well informed.

Trust – let others get on with what they are good at.  Comms for Comms, Government Affairs for Government Affairs, Legal for Legal, and Environment Health and Safety for Environment Health and Safety.

Asking for help – when I didn’t know something, I would not be afraid to ask our China Johnson & Johnson colleagues.  Whether you're in steady state times or in challenging times, partnerships are key. We pulled in colleagues from across Johnson & Johnson China, Janssen and even from the global team to develop the highest standard of health and safety protocols for anyone coming on site.

Prioritization- Ensure attendance at the right meetings. Choosing the right way to spend limited time was essential early on so I could keep up-to-date with the rest of the policies implemented in China by Johnson & Johnson, leverage the best resources, and share best practices for the role-out of our response.

Stepping up – We worked around the clock as a team to make sure we understood all of the processes and procedures for how to apply to re-open and ensure the safety of everyone on site.

How has the experience of COVID-19 made us stronger as a company?

Through our Innovation Centers and Business Development teams, across our global innovation network we have been searching and reviewing novel science and technologies to help address the pandemic: Since the outbreak, Johnson & Johnson has screened over 100 opportunities related to potential vaccines, antiviral therapeutics and diagnostics/consumer aids. Following these initial assessments, several opportunities are currently under detailed evaluation.

Within JLABS, 45 resident companies are actively exploring novel technologies to help address the COVID-19 pandemic. From JLABS @ Shanghai, one-fifth of our residents are adapting or pivoting their technology address various needs within the pandemic

As part of ongoing collaborations between Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS and BARDA (the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, part of the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response), continued effort has been placed on, education, outreach and other activities to attract, identify and ultimately support the development of companies with prospective solutions and strategies specifically targeted at combatting the COVID-19 crisis.  In addition to its QuickFire Challenges, JLABS is also developing a pipeline of innovator companies to be hosted and mentored at JLABS @ Washington, DC that have a scientific focus in pandemic preparedness and combating emerging infectious diseases, which are areas of mutual interest.

Through our strategic corporate venture arm Johnson & Johnson – JJDC, we are currently investing in three external companies running research programs focused on COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics.

Our work has never been more important. JLABS was founded to help entrepreneurs succeed.  During these challenging times, we will continue to help remove the barriers that entrepreneurs face. We’re here to help them during these challenging times!

Learn More:

To learn more about the JLABS @ Shanghai site, including an overview of our current and alumni residents, upcoming programming and more, please visit: https://jlabs.jnjinnovation.com/locations/jlabs-shanghai