Taking the Leap: Advice on navigating the journey from academia to start-up from JLABS @ San Diego’s Sanjay Mistry

By JLABS
Q&A

San Diego, CA - When medical science wasn’t enough to save a loved one, Sanjay Mistry channeled his grief into curiosity. Instead of asking “why” he began to ask “what if?” What if scientific discovery could lead to a different outcome for others suffering in similar ways? His high school love of biology turned into an obsession for scientific advancement, leading to 40+ patents and 20 peer-reviewed publications. He is also a graduate of the Kauffman Fellowship Program, one of the world’s premier innovation, leadership and venture capital focused programs.

Pushing scientific boundaries is what landed Mistry at Johnson & Johnson Innovation, as head of JLABS @ San Diego, part of an innovation incubation ecosystem which houses the potential next generation of life science phenoms. The model aims to allow innovators to accelerate their life science companies in an incubation environment and the potential opportunity to connect to J&J’s venture capital arm (JJDC) and generate collaborations and licensing via J&J innovation centers. “This is a place where I believe I can make the biggest impact and give the most back and also identify must-have potential healthcare solutions for J&J,” says Mistry.

During the interview, he discusses building an entrepreneurial life in science and venture capital, and aims to provide valuable advice for new entrepreneurs, especially those who wish to make the challenging crossover from academia to business.

Looking back on your career, what do you wish you had known about navigating the path from academia to founder?

In academia, you are focused on becoming a true scientific leader. But, if you want to become a founder, I feel you have to train yourself to look at those around you who have made the jump into the biotech ecosystem. Tap into forums, build connections and surround yourself with others who have built biotechs or companies in your discipline. A key part of your ability to be successful is learning from others who have taken that risk. Essentially, you need to build up the courage to become an entrepreneur and have the passion to translate science.

How does a new entrepreneur learn to tell their story to different audiences with varying levels of understanding of science? What are your tips & tricks?

It’s not simple. It takes a lot of learning on the job in order to articulate your scientific thesis into a business case. But, you must also learn to tell your story and business proposition to different audiences - from the tech transfer office to a venture capitalist and ultimately the payor. Learn from others who are good at telling their story and ask their advice. At the end of the day, you have to make the investor understand what impact this medical breakthrough will have.

As a young founder I was learning this on the job. I stepped out of academia into a team pulling IP out of universities to commercialize it. I quickly found myself on the leading edge of relationship building with larger institutions, involved in investor calls talking about the scientific value proposition while the CEO would talk about the business value proposition. You must learn very fast.

If you could name one thing that shaped you into the leader we see today, what would that be?

You have to test your own risk tolerance. In my formative years, I snowboarded, surfed and played sports. As I got older, I was willing to travel and be relocated every six months for new scientific opportunities. And I realized that science crossed many disciplines, enabled global connections and, more critically, that innovation mattered everywhere.

Early in my career, I worked in the Netherlands for six months in an industrial company called DSM Resins where we created a paint binder which prevented microbial growths so boats wouldn’t rot in the water. Then, I worked in a hospital system where I created what I feel is a very unique assay to help detect tumors in young children. In the six months I was there, we found three tumors and removed them!

Shortly after that, I landed at a cytogenetics plant breeding station in Wales. When you look at a soccer pitch and see the grass only grows so high, it’s because people like me were studying a way to get the chromosomes oriented so that grass would only grow so high. I was also lucky enough to spend several months in Paris working at University of Paris Sorbonne doing diabetes research. But, if I hadn’t been open to exploring not just scientific approaches, but being in different cultures, perhaps I wouldn’t be here. So, risk and learning is all part of the journey.

As entrepreneurs must learn things quickly, which entrepreneurial skills do you feel are most important to develop?

You have to build relationships, all day long. Establish long-lasting relationships across all disciplines in your field. For me, I fostered relationships not only in biology, but chemistry and physics and beyond my field of work. You’ve got to be open to connecting with others for the best scientific solution. Look for opportunities to collaborate. I was always very open to knowledge-sharing in order to make scientific progress. You can’t do it alone. You need input, you need supporters, and you need to ensure you’re helping others.

How did your time in venture capital prepare you for your current role?

My time at Quaker Partners was simply invaluable, allowing me to learn how an investor looks at science beyond translation, with a sharp focus on generating value in the form of ROI. It was a unique learning experience with a diverse set of investment partners that helped shape how I would look at science from a commercial and partnering lens. Venture is a critical component of enabling the innovator ecosystem.

From entrepreneur and patent holder to VC and biopharma executive, you’ve seen every side of innovation. What led you to Johnson & Johnson Innovation - JLABS?

Johnson & Johnson Innovation has done a tremendous job of creating an innovation ecosystem that is deeply recognized. Where I’m at in my career, I feel I can give a lot back to start-ups. Because of my background, I believe I can help shape them early on and make appropriate connections. After working within a very successful pharmaceutical organization, I feel I know what these new companies need.

What do you find most rewarding about working with founders and startups?

There is an abundance of small start-up companies with high levels of innovation within the Johnson & Johnson Innovation network. I almost feel like a Chief Scientific Officer, owning a whole portfolio of scientific opportunities where I feel I can help develop their value, plus grow the ecosystem here in San Diego and importantly connect innovation to Johnson & Johnson. But I also enjoy the fact that these companies seem to value my experience. I spend a lot of time having mentoring conversations and hope they find it very meaningful. I am constantly wowed by the companies and talent at JLABS @ San Diego, the science they are chasing, and the passion they put behind it.

Culture starts at the top. How have you fostered that culture of diversity and inclusion at Johnson & Johnson Innovation - JLABS? Why is that so important in science and health care?

Within Johnson & Johnson Innovation- JLABS, we are very fortunate to have a diverse team and foster companies that have diverse teams. I feel science brings the best and brightest of minds together, from any culture, gender, discipline, anywhere. Whoever brings strength to the table, should get a seat at the table. The scientific teams that are involved in getting one drug to the market are culturally diverse, and from around the globe. Johnson & Johnson is such a global company that we couldn’t function and thrive without diversity and inclusion. Johnson & Johnson Innovation- JLABS leads by example and has more female than male leaders.

What advice would you have for a new entrepreneur amidst the challenges of COVID-19?

Keep focused on the science, conduct the killer experiments and preserve capital. In this time when everyone is conducting business virtually, keep connected through the channels available to you. As an entrepreneur you are always building relationships and networking. We all have to adapt to this new virtual world.

What famous person would you most like to invite to Johnson & Johnson Innovation- JLABS?

Based on this moment in time, I might say Louis Pasteur, because innovation is needed from anywhere and everywhere. And sometimes serendipity in ideation might be the key ingredient to get through a pandemic like this.

Is there something you’re looking forward to most in the region?

Forging and maximizing existing and new regional relationships that can lead to identifying and incubating innovation that can translate into better healthcare for patients is a priority for me. As stated by the San Diego Union Tribune, San Diego startups, those in life science leading the way, raised over $1.26B in venture capital in Q2 of 2020, our largest quarter of venture funding since 2014. An impressive fact considering we only have a few resident venture firms here. There is plenty of talent, great academic institutions, and above all a collaborative, “let’s go do this” attitude here in SoCal, which is second to none.

What does Johnson & Johnson Innovation hope to achieve by having JLABS in San Diego?

Ultimately, JLABS provides us with an opportunity to be close to and incubate the latest and greatest innovation within southern California that could fill our pipeline needs across our three sectors: consumer, medical devices and pharmaceuticals. Our thirst for novel healthcare potential solutions grows each year, and as we have seen during this pandemic, innovation from tried and tested methods to new modes of digital healthcare can be fundamental to our ability to sustain patient care for the long-term.

To learn more about Johnson & Johnson Innovation - JLABS or inquire about opportunities to partner with Johnson & Johnson Innovation, please visit https://jlabs.jnjinnovation.com/locations/jlabs-san-diego