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Reimagining How We Prepare for New & Emerging Public Health Threats: A Conversation with JLABS’ BARDA Alliance Director Rachel Rath


In the era of COVID-19, Zika, and Ebola, Rachel Rath wants us to imagine a world where we strive to be one-step ahead of the next public health emergency.


In the first of its kind role, Rachel has stepped into the position of Director of the BARDA Alliance for Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS, based at JLABS @ Washington, DC. In this position, she manages BLUE KNIGHT™, the collaboration between JLABS and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), part of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Blue Knight focuses on creating an ecosystem of innovation which aims to improve our response capacity and capabilities to address 21st century health security threats.

Before joining JLABS, Rachel worked for more than a decade in roles to advance collaborative efforts across the health sector, including as the Chief of Staff for the National Evaluation System for health Technology Coordinating Center (NESTcc)—an initiative of the Medical Device Innovation Consortium (MDIC). In addition, from 2014 to 2017, Rachel was based at the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), helping to launch the Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network (PCORnet), a national effort to engage patients and leverage electronic health data to improve the speed and efficiency of clinical research in the United States.

This week, Rachel shared her views on the power of public-private partnerships, as well as her vision for Blue Knight and how JLABS’ collaboration with BARDA seeks to have a global impact.

Q: Your role came about through strategic collaboration between BARDA and Johnson & Johnson Innovation. Can you speak to your view on the importance of this public-private partnership and the power of collaboration more broadly?

I believe public-private partnerships can be a critical catalyst in the innovation ecosystem. Resources are limited—we can only have so many priorities, we only have so much time, and dollars can only stretch so far. By bringing together private industry, entrepreneurs and government, we aim to push further, move faster, and ultimately become more adept at advancing novel science and technologies that can lead to treatments and interventions that are better designed and potentially more effective.

Q: What specific areas of interest will Blue Knight be addressing?

BARDA seeks to be at the forefront of innovation and JLABS is designed to identify and advance great ideas and support an entrepreneurial culture. Through our shared vision for improving global health security, we’ve launched the Blue Knight collaboration. The aim is to spur innovation in areas of mutual interest for Johnson & Johnson and BARDA, specifically looking to identify potential solutions that will allow us to leap frog ahead of where we are today in addressing certain unmet medical needs.

For example, we’re looking for innovations with commercial and preparedness applications that could allow us to deliver vaccines and therapeutics in new ways; technologies that could allow us to detect diseases earlier—even outside a traditional healthcare setting; and cross-disease and cross-sector platforms that could allow us to push forward in ways that permit innovation that is not disease-specific. In addition, we are interested in ideas for potential solutions designed for populations particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases and emerging health security threats, including children and pregnant woman.

Q: How do you see Blue Knight fitting into the global JLABS network? How can JLABS residents and innovation ecosystems across the world benefit from this collaboration between BARDA and JLABS?

JLABS @ Washington, DC, is considered the ‘hub’ for Blue Knight, with residency opportunities currently also available in our JLABS locations in New York City, San Diego and Toronto. We are accepting applications for residency now and invite innovators to apply to become a Blue Knight company through our online application.

While there is a physical footprint in these four JLABS locations, the Blue Knight collaboration also seeks to extend the JLABS “culture of collaboration.” We do this by connecting Blue Knight companies and the broader global innovation ecosystem through customized educational programming that aims to engage entrepreneurs at the forefront of infectious disease, public health and scientific and technology research. I encourage anyone interested in learning more about JLABS and Blue Knight to visit our full schedule of JLABS virtual and on-demand programming, which is open to the public.

Each year, BARDA and JLABS also intend to convene the Blue Knight community through a symposia series as a means of cross pollination of ideas and insights, bringing together thought leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs working to bolster our response capacity and capabilities. The date for our first symposium will be announced soon! Anyone interested in being notified about current and upcoming Blue Knight activities can subscribe to receive JLABS updates.

Q: Can you share your vision of what Blue Knight should look like a year from now and give an update on the new JLABS @ Washington, DC, scheduled to open later this year?

A year from now, we aim to have established a collaborative community of Blue Knight residents across our sites in Washington, D.C., New York, San Diego, and Toronto. The seven global companies announced this week as part of the Blue Knight collaboration provide a preview of the diverse portfolio poised to drive forth innovations that intend to advance medical countermeasures aimed at securing our nation from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats, as well as from pandemic influenza and emerging infectious diseases.

I also look forward to a dynamic exchange of ideas between our Blue Knight companies and their mentors from BARDA and Johnson & Johnson. This mentorship, along with the connections made across the JLABS network, could help accelerate the development of novel products and technologies aimed at preparing for and responding to the health security threats of today and in the future.  

Construction for the JLABS @ Washington, DC, site is on schedule, and we anticipate onboarding Blue Knight residents to this newest JLABS facility in early 2021. Sally Allain, Regional Head of JLABS @ Washington, DC, gave us a sneak peek on the progress to date during her recent site visit. You can check it out here.

Q: What’s something you’re looking forward to over the next year?

As someone who has spent their entire professional life in research in Washington, D.C., I’ve recognized a tangible excitement rippling through the D.C. innovation community as we prepare for the Children’s National Research and Innovation Campus to open on the historic Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus.

The true reward is welcoming our Blue Knight companies into the JLABS family, with the intention of advancing fresh, inspiring approaches to infectious disease prevention and response and developing innovative medical countermeasures.

Learn more!

Blue Knight is currently accepting applications for residency in Washington, D.C., New York City, San Diego and Toronto. For the latest updates visit https://jlabs.jnjinnovation.com/blue-knight.