“I don’t know what you have, but I don’t think you’re going to make it.”
I’ll never forget that moment when those words came out of my doctor’s mouth. I was 27 years old and there was still so much in life I had yet to experience; getting married, having children, growing old. Just the day before, I was excited to be in Beijing on an executive fast track with my employer, a giant in the telecom industry, and the next, I’m a patient who just wants to get through the night to see the next day.
Looking back at that time, my reaction still surprises me. No question, I felt scared and vulnerable, but I also felt confused. How is it possible that I had been poked and prodded, my blood studied under a microscope multiple times by multiple people, not one but two spinal taps, a helivac to Hong Kong for more poking and prodding, and still they couldn’t tell me what was wrong? At the same time, technology had become so advanced that I was working in a company focused on ordering sodas from a vending machine with a cell phone. Couldn’t anyone see the irony of all this money, press and talent going to something that now seemed so frivolous when clearly, there seemed to be a lack of investment for innovation focused on our health?
Obviously, I did not die. Over the course of nearly three months in hospitals in Asia, they finally figured out that I’d been bitten by a mite and prescribed the correct therapeutics. Over the course of the next year, I slowly made a full recovery. But that didn’t quell the passionate journey that mite sent me on. Those 13 words said by my doctor that day changed the course of my life forever.
As I recovered, I felt more and more compelled to level the playing field between technology and healthcare. I knew first-hand how fast the tech industry moved, what little resources were required to do so, and how many people were attracted to it….so why not “techify” life sciences? Why couldn’t the model that enabled a few coders with a little seed money to develop a multimillion dollar platform in a year be applied to healthcare? It could, and I was going to do it.
Everyone thought I was crazy. How would it be possible to make healthcare innovation more productive, more advanced, more time and cost efficient? “Healthcare is too regulated.” “Lab space is too expensive.” “Investors don’t like to invest in biotech.” “You don’t have a PhD.” Every reason I was given of why it wouldn’t work and why I couldn’t do it fueled my determination to tackle it, hurdle by hurdle. So I made the jump, and along the way, found a few other wild folks who were passionate about making a difference to make the jump with me.
We formed a company called Prescience International in San Francisco, with the goal of providing everything an innovator and an investor would need to form a company, and accelerate the best science to patients in a time and cost efficient way. We provided lab space, equipment, training, set them up with compliance procedures, and even provided consulting and education on business, science and operations. We convinced investors why this model would make a better return for them, and because we housed multiple companies, we provided our scientists a community and opportunities to network and collaborate.
Most importantly, I believed it was critical to make this a “no strings attached” model; where innovators were incentivized to build as much value as they could on their own so their returns in the business of health might rival the returns tech entrepreneurs realized. By creating an open innovation approach, I believed early stage innovation would not only multiply and accelerate, but that with more and better shots on goal, we would have a higher probability of reaching patients.
The wildest thing about all this? It worked.
So we decided to expand to San Diego, where we caught the eye of Janssen Pharmaceuticals, the pharmaceutical R&D arm of Johnson & Johnson, and JLABS was officially born.
It’s been five years since the launch of JLABS, and the growth we’ve experienced has finally started to feel for me like we’re making a difference in early stage health innovation, and not just in pharma, but across the many sectors in healthcare. We have grown to eight locations across the U.S. and Canada, with New York City set to open early next year. We’re also focused on expanding our presence globally. And why not? With rising populations and global health issues, we want to empower, enable and inspire innovators around the world to make a difference for their region, for their people.
Having just wrapped up our Impact Report (click here), I’m proud of the opportunity JLABS gives the best and the brightest to set their sights on a mission to help people live long and healthy lives. We currently have over 190 companies inside JLABS, with 121 more in our alumni network, all focused on health. My dream is for patients all over the world, lying in their hospital beds at this very moment like I once was, to know we have an army of people who are fighting for them; hopefully to never hear those dreaded words, “we don’t know.”
To this day, the emotions I went through in that moment in Beijing still overwhelm me…and at the same time I realize that in that moment was the gift of life; a purpose that has fueled me through the hills and valleys of this journey to create a productive, proud and purposeful community for health. It is indeed the common thread that binds all our scientists and entrepreneurs in JLABS; setting our sights on overcoming disease and willing to risk everything to see it through. That’s what our innovators are doing every day, and although we may be providing them with the platform, they’re the real heroes. They are the ones dedicating their lives so we might live and in fact, so that we might thrive.