Sally Allain Goes to Washington: Meet the New Head of JLABS @ Washington, DC

By JLABS
Q&A

Sally Allain is no stranger to Johnson & Johnson, holding leadership positions across the organization, most recently as Senior Director, Strategy & Operations, Global External Innovation. She began her research career at a San Diego-based biotech start-up, so she also understands the challenges entrepreneurs and researchers face on the road to bringing their ideas to market.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Sally earlier this week as she takes on this new role and returns to her roots in the D.C. metro region. 

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In the excerpts below, Sally shares what excites her about opening a JLABS in the nation’s capital and what she hopes to bring to start-ups working to develop new answers for patients.

What excites you most about taking on the new role of Head of JLABS @ Washington, DC?

The DC-Maryland-Virginia region is a hotbed of life science innovators, along with strong public and private research institutions. This network of connectivity offers such an opportunity for entrepreneurs working in the life sciences, medical device, and consumer technology space. Opening a JLABS in DC introduces our no-strings-attached JLABS model into the region with the aim to support the focus of these innovators on what they do best – their science and research. By providing the resources, mentoring, programming, and connections start-ups need to be successful, we hope to speed the development and commercialization of innovative treatments and solutions for patients and consumers.

I’m also incredibly excited to be working with our partners at Children’s National Health System, as well as with BARDA (Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority). Together, we will aim to not only be supporting the entrepreneurial community, but also have a shared goal of identifying and advancing potentially great ideas and technologies from innovative companies focused on helping the most vulnerable patients and communities.

I grew up just outside of Washington, D.C., and did my graduate work here in Virginia. To now be bringing the start-up energy of California, the strength of Johnson & Johnson’s expertise across sectors, and opportunities for partnering to the Washington, D.C. ecosystem is exciting!

What led you to a career in health innovation and working with entrepreneurs and in external partnering?

I am a self-proclaimed “science nerd” and have always loved science. At a very early age, I was fascinated with microbiology and how changes occurring at such a simple, micro level could make huge differences in an individual’s health and wellness. As a child, I remember I would spend hours on science projects because they were fun but also because they were a challenge.

Throughout my graduate studies and early career, I was at the laboratory bench. Though important, research can be very slow moving and incremental. After five years, I realized that I wanted to move faster and support a larger business portfolio versus being focused on individual projects. I was also very drawn to the business side of science. I moved across roles in the start-up environment supporting portfolio management and contractual and intellectual property needs  and then into large pharma leading strategy, business operations, and alliance management. This is where I really saw firsthand the value in strategic partnerships between large corporations and small companies. Start-ups can be nimbler and take on bigger risks, but benefit from larger company collaborations to overcome hurdles from development to commercialization. In turn, the industry can help entrepreneurs to accelerate bringing their ideas forward. When the partnerships work, it’s a great symbiotic arrangement.

Having worked across healthcare – from start-ups to biopharma – what advice would you offer our JLABS entrepreneurs? 

To the entrepreneurs out there, even though you’re moving at great speed, working on the bench and up through the boardroom, you need to remember that it’s a marathon at times and not just a sprint. It’s likely to take twice as much time and sometimes cost twice as much to accomplish the goals that you’ve set out.

From a JLABS perspective, know that we will aim to be there for you through the entire process to help and support you, and make connections to set you up for success.

You’ve dedicated time to encouraging girls and women to pursue and stay in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers. What has inspired you in moving your career forward – and what will we need to do to see more women in leadership across the life sciences?

The gap between the number of women working in STEM fields versus men is concerning to me – especially when we know that diversity “at the table” translates to increased productivity, greater innovation, better products, and better decision making.[i] The National Science Foundation reports that “women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, but only 28% of the science and engineering workforce.”[ii] This drop-off after college raises many questions and drives my efforts on how we can better nurture the development of women leaders in the life sciences.

I believe you can influence and have an impact by expanding your own network. If your network looks the same as you, often a diversity of valuable perspectives and ideas is missing.

One of my personal passions is leading an initiative and team developing the Johnson & Johnson WiSTEM2D (Women in Science Technology Engineering Math Manufacturing & Design) Scholars Program. Through this initiative, we’re providing support and mentorship to female professors. The goal is to support early-career female scientists and ensure they have the resources and networks necessary to continue pursuing the important and life-changing studies they’ve already begun.

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Learn more!
The JLABS @ Washington, DC site will be open in late 2020 to pharmaceutical, medical device, consumer and health technology companies that are aiming to advance the development of new drugs, medical devices, precision diagnostics and health technologies, including applications in pediatrics. For the latest updates visit https://jlabs.jnjinnovation.com/locations/jlabs-washington-dc.

To mark the launch of the new JLABS on the Children’s National campus and the collaboration with BARDA, JLABS announced the JLABS @ Washington, DC Children’s QuickFire Challenge aiming to accelerate the development and commercialization of pediatric-centered healthcare innovation. For more information about the application process, please visit https://jlabs.tv/DC.

[i] https://www.morganstanley.com/ideas/gender-diversity-investor-guide

[ii] National Science Foundation, Science & Engineering Indicators, 2018. Accessed October 1, 2019 https://nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsb20181/.