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Harvey, Helplessness, and Hope

I grew up on the coast of Texas; hurricanes come with the territory. I’ve heard my parents and grandparents swap stories about hurricane Carla in 1961, I remember evacuating to my aunt and uncle’s house in north Houston for Alicia in ’83, watched in horror from my new home in Austin as friends and family were literally trapped on I45 for hours trying to evacuate when Rita hit in 2005, just after Katrina, and lastly, I remember the devastation hurricane Ike brought in 2008. When I got the opportunity to relocate back home to Houston late last year, the threat of a hurricane never entered my mind. When Harvey started showing up on the radar, I had to remind myself, “Oh yeah, it’s hurricane season.” First, it started out as an inconvenience. We were doing the usual preparations, gas in the cars, lots of bottled water, generator in case we lost power, etc., and then they cancelled school on Friday, August 25th. School had just started on Monday, and as a mom of four kids ages 2-9, school starting was a welcome relief. The storm hit Friday night, and it was uneventful for me in my coastal suburb of Houston. It was upgraded to a category 4 just before landfall, and I held my breath for our seaside neighbors in Port Aransas and Rockport. We got a little rain and some lightning, but nothing too crazy. The kids slept through the entire thing. The next day on Facebook, my feed was full of people marking themselves “safe”, and heartbreaking pictures from the coast. I got a notification that a friend in Phoenix was trying to see if I was okay and it offered to mark me safe, and I accepted. I know now this was premature. I don’t remember exactly what time the first warning came through on my phone, but it made me jump a mile. It was a tornado warning, and it was the first of many. At one point, a local news station reported that we’d had 110 tornado warnings caused by Harvey. My phone was buzzing constantly. By Monday, I didn’t even hear them anymore. On Saturday, the rain started and it didn’t stop. The rain came down so hard and so fast, that my husband was in our backyard until 3am digging trenches trying to give the water somewhere to go other than inside our home. We had to drain our pool over a dozen times. After a sleepless night and a brief break in the rain, my husband and I loaded up the kids and drove around the neighborhood to assess the damage. We couldn’t get very far. Our house is located in the center of the subdivision, and we were literally on an island. The water was so high on the outskirts, the streets were unrecognizable and we saw the top halves of cars sitting ominously in the flood waters. We quietly drove back home. Helplessness The next few days were awful. There’s no pretty way to say what was happening in Houston and its surrounding areas, and I have no words to describe the strangling feeling of helplessness as I watched the destruction going on around me. I was dry, had power, and felt incredibly guilty about it. We were lucky. My heart was broken for those who weren’t. Thanks to social media, I had an inside view into what was going on in the lives of friends and family members across town. Every time a new evacuation was called or they showed a particularly bad area on the news, I found myself checking my mental rolodex to remember who lives where and try to reach out or check their Facebook status for an update. I sat horrified and helpless as a friend’s wife from high school posted that she was trapped in her attic with her children, as friends frantically shared her status trying to get someone to rescue her. Address after address popped up of people asking for help because the water rose so quickly, no one had time to get out. With constant digging and pool draining, we continued to stay safe and dry, but I quickly learned of others who weren’t so lucky. Several colleagues and residents of JLABS @ TMC were forced to evacuate, several of their homes took on water, and some confirmed they lost everything. Still I sat in my house, glued to the news, restless, unable to help. Then came the hope One thing about Houstonians, they act fast. The flood waters were still rising when long time business owner Jim McIngvale opened his furniture store to people displaced by the storm. JJ Watt started a donation fund, which he pledged the first $100K, and that fund hit $20M after Labor Day. But it wasn’t the celebrities or the rich that made the biggest impact, it was the people who were suffering themselves. It seems like suddenly the entire boat owning population of Houston were helping people out of their homes. For every “rescue needed” post I saw on Facebook, there were two more saying “We have a boat, text me if you need help.” That’s the thing about the people that inhabit our nation’s most diverse city, in a time of need, they answer the call. When the shelters began to pop up I had the kids clean out their drawers and closets. I also made a mental note to not do a major cleanout next year until after hurricane season. After we curated our pile, I went onto Facebook and Nextdoor to see who nearby was accepting donations. To my surprise, no one was. They were now asking for very specific toiletries, and turning everything else away due to an overwhelming response. We were too late. People who lived here longer knew what was coming, and they were ready. I found a truck heading for Rockport, and I sent our donations with them. I read once that in a tragic situation we’re supposed to look for the helpers. Our operations manager Julie Humphries volunteered at a local church with her husband and two daughters, one of our resident CEO’s reported to the convention center and volunteered as a medic, how our team could contribute to relief efforts was a passionate topic in our daily team check ins, and those are just the stories I know about. Helpers were everywhere. By Wednesday, things were finally settling down. Many areas were still flooded, but the storm had finally turned east, and the sun began to peek out from the clouds. My neighbor’s unofficial rain gauge, which is basically a bucket with measurements, held 51 inches of water. If you look at the map below, I fall into the light gray category just south of Downtown Houston. The U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) actually had to add not one, but two color categories to their map to effectively show the rain totals during Harvey. The news stations are now referring to it as an unprecedented 1000-year flood. Texans are resilient. We are far from being able to rebuild. Most people are still unable to return to their homes. Schools have all been closed until September 11, some indefinitely, and even though our JLABS site had minimal damage, due to highway flooding and accessibility, we were told to stay home and focus on our families until after Labor Day. Looking forward, we will be deprived of life’s conveniences, my trash service and I imagine the rest of the city’s, has been restricted because of landfill flooding and debris, grocery stores are far from being fully stocked, gasoline prices, if you can find it, have spiked. The rest of the country will move on. We, however, will be living with daily reminders of Harvey. I am so grateful and appreciative for the constant check ins and well wishes from colleagues across the world. J&J set up a 2-1 match for employees towards partner charities, and the JLABS team has pledged to donate all event proceeds across JLABS sites for Q3 to the Greater Houston Community Foundation to help those affected by the storm.  The outpouring of support from my personal and professional community is incredible. One of my girlfriend’s commented good heartedly, “Looks like a great time to move back to Austin!” Nope, not in a million years. I’m staying right here, because I know that no matter what happens, Houston has my back.


JPALing around with Stef Dhanda

This is the first post in our JPALS series.

Every company that moves into JLABS gets paired with a JPAL. These experts from within Johnson & Johnson Innovation act as mentors to our resident companies, providing knowledge, connections, and support in order to help them succeed. JPALS are invested in the success of their resident companies, and they’re a crucial piece of the JPALS strategy. In this series, we’ll be interviewing JPALS about how they’ve helped our resident companies succeed, what makes them good mentors, and why they love being involved with JLABS.



Stefanie Dhanda is a Senior Director, Consumer Scientific Innovation, working out of the Johnson & Johnson Innovation Center in Boston. She leads Consumer sector efforts to grow and manage a portfolio of innovative external partnerships, collaborations and investments for the benefit of the Johnson & Johnson Consumer businesses, focusing on Eastern U.S., Eastern Canada and Latin America. One part of her job is working with early-stage companies who are residents at JLABS @ Toronto, and the upcoming JLABS @ NYC.

What do you bring to the companies that you mentor?
What makes you a good JPAL?

I sometimes refer to myself as a “recovering investment banker.” After a 20+ year career in the financial industry, making the move to consumer goods may not seem like an obvious shift, but it makes a lot of sense. There are a lot of consistencies in skills I developed in investment banking that are critical in working with early-stage companies – thinking through long term strategies, conveying the growth story, business modeling, and the ability to get something from where it is today to where we’re trying go. While I’m not a scientist, most of my investment banking clients were in the consumer or healthcare space, so I picked up the ability to quickly grasp technical concepts along the way.

What does being a JPAL mean to you?

The most important part of being a JPAL is being the bridge between Johnson & Johnson and these early-stage companies. I can help with some things: business modeling, creating and verbalizing a growth story, financial strategizing, long-term visioning – but there are a lot of skills I don’t bring. Whether they need to speak to a regulatory person, a technical expert or a marketing and consumer science specialist, or if they need access to equipment, identifying and facilitating access to the right people within Johnson & Johnson is probably the most critical piece of being a JPAL. It’s about making that connection, being a communicator, and making those introductions to support these companies.

What do you like most about being a JPAL?

I like working with early stage companies, helping them take a raw idea, maybe even something written on a napkin, and turning it into a business plan, carving out that path to grow it into something that could ultimately be successful. That’s what most of my job is: taking companies from a native idea and being able to see the pathway to becoming a viable product– and working with those companies to help move that process along.

How many companies do you mentor?

Right now, I regularly mentor two consumer companies, both based out of JLABS @ Toronto. I’ve helped a number of others, maybe four or five, with smaller projects or by connecting them to other mentors who have the right skills for their needs.

How have you helped JLABS companies?

One of our JLABS companies is in the sun/UV space. They needed do some testing, but had no access to a solar simulator (a machine that mimics the sun, used in a clinical setting to test performance of their product in simulated sunlight). I was able to connect them to the Johnson & Johnson Sun Care team in Skillman NJ, and the JLABS company traveled to Skillman to use our solar simulator equipment for their tests. And moreover, they did some of their testing alongside our UV experts. This helped them get a lot more info about how to run these tests, and they ended up changing their methodologies based on input of those experts.

During those discussions, they indicated they were having some technical issues with the adhesive on their product.  On the same trip to Skillman, we were also able to have them spend time with adhesive experts from the BAND-AID® team, who provided guidance on better adhesives for the back of the sticker to improve the “stickiness.”

We have such deep internal expertise in these areas and it’s pretty awesome for these young companies to be connected to these experts. And for us, the JPALS program is a great way for internal employees to be involved with the external innovation activities happening at JLABS.


Melinda’s Origin Story

Best Team ever

“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.


5 Years and Counting

What started out as a plan for a small reception to celebrate the JLABS Five-Year Anniversary quickly turned into something more. Something that created more conversations, more learning opportunities, and most importantly, more connections; CEO’s, Investors, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, and JLABS converging to connect on science, deals and innovation.

On October 19th Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS celebrated its five-year anniversary by hosting our first CEO Summit. This was a valuable experience for JLABS Company CEOs to meet with their mentors, investors and each other.

Setting the tone for the day, our leaders, Melinda Richter, Global Head of JLABS, and Robert Urban, Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, reminded us of the goal that we as a tight knit biotech community are trying to accomplish – to get solutions to patients faster.

How does an event like this reflect our mission? Well, as Chris Jordan, Director of Exercise Physiology at the Human Performance Institute said, by “bringing our best energy to maximize our job performance,” we can provide extra support and encouragement that healthcare innovators truly need.

The energy the JLABS team brought behind the scenes created much anticipation for an exciting event across the JLABS ecosystem. CEO of Stelvio, Attila Hajdu, mention that he and his team “are very fortunate to be part of this exciting and vibrant ecosystem that has the right people and resources needed to catalyze innovation.” Coordinating speakers, queuing slides, and trying to remember to eat, the JLABS team and Johnson & Johnson Innovation came together to maximize their energy and kept the day going.

Keynote speaker Daniel Kraft, Founder & Chair of Exponential Medicine, took the stage to discuss the future of healthcare. “We are coming to an era of a digital check up with the doctor.” This has got to make you think, how do we get there tomorrow? In the Fireside Chat, Global Head of Janssen Research & Development, Bill Hait said that “The advantage to a small biotech startup is the deep expertise.”

With five years under our belt, JLABS has formed a community full of deep expertise and mentorship. Curating and nurturing for such a community doesn’t happen in one year; it’s a constant learning experience. The Successful JLABS CEOs panel can attest to the experiences and challenges that both JLABS and the resident companies go through each day to achieve that success. In addition, networking with these companies has formed connections for Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School Natalie Artzi that she “[hopes] to build on.”

Where do we see the future of science going? The Futurist panel referenced the movie Blade Runner. It’s almost comical to think that a movie filmed in the 1980’s portraying 2017 would have biological robots. For better or for worse, the members from this panel don’t think we are too far off that theory. The most important thing is bringing together powerful and passionate minds with forward thinking in technology and medicine to make a positive change in healthcare.

I’ve only been with Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS for one year, but the community growth that I get to witness every day is something out of this world. Walking down the laboratory halls, you can feel the energy and passion these companies bring to the bench to make a difference in the world of medicine. JLABS is making a difference in the world of medicine one connection at a time.


ImmunoMet: A JLABS @ TMC resident finds growth in shrinking cancer cells

Dr. Ben Cowen is no stranger to the life sciences scene. With more than 20 years of experience in big pharma, one could reasonably assume he'd be ready to slow down. Ben completed his National institute of Health post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 90s, and hasn't stopped since. He held multiple positions at Merck and Shire, and then he sharpened his saw with startups. With his experience, it's no wonder that he's a sought-after mentor and a natural leader in the JLABS @ TMC ecosystem.

Again, this is a typical point in one's career when you begin to think about sun setting into a comfortable retirement, but not Ben. He laughed at the suggestion and cut me off by saying he's never worked harder in his life than he has since joining ImmunoMet; and he's loving every minute of it.

"The reason I'm here is because we have the potential opportunity to save thousands of lives," said Ben Cowen, CEO of ImmunoMet. "Our drugs address a huge unmet need in the oncology space, and the data is extremely promising. We at ImmunoMet have the potential to make a real difference."

According to Ben, ImmunoMet is a private biotech company that utilizes cellular metabolism to develop both anti-tumor and immuno-oncology therapies. Founded in July 2015 as a spinoff of Korean pharmaceutical company, HanAll BioPharma, ImmunoMet started as an oncology passion project by the founding CEO, Sung-Wuk Kim, whose personal experience with cancer drove him to action.  Under Kim's leadership, HanAll heavily invested in oncology discovery, and when the program became successful, HanAll spun the assets off into ImmunoMet. The company stayed in Korea for the first year, and then applied to JLABS in Houston at the Texas Medical Center to establish a U.S. presence. 

That's when a recruiter found Ben, showed him the technology, and he jumped at the chance to take the helm in the U.S. Although he permanently resides in Philadelphia, Ben commutes to Houston twice a month to spend time with his team, which is made up of six full time researchers who relocated to Houston from Seoul.

Ben shared that since coming to JLABS ImmunoMet has hit milestone after milestone. In the last few months, the company began its first Phase 1 clinical trial studies for its lead candidate IM156 at Yonsei Medical Center (South Korea), a Sister Center of MD Anderson Cancer Center; it appointed Ben as its new CEO; named two oncology heavyweights to its board of directors; and recently added a  chief medical officer and chief financial officer. 

"It all starts with good science, and then you get the snowball effect," Cowen told me in a conference room at JLABS @ TMC. "Our growth is contributed to the foundation we've built upon solid science, and then we've worked to establish the infrastructure to prepare us to become a Phase 2 company." 

Throughout our conversation, Ben shared that ImmunoMet is currently working on two programs. The lead candidate is IM156, which targets resistant tumors or tumors that have relapsed to standard therapies. IM156 showed promise in animal efficacy data in a number of solid tumors, including Glioblastoma (GBM), and is currently in phase 1 trials.

The second program is IM188, an immuno-oncology therapy that targets immune suppressor cells in a tumor micro environment. IM188 was developed in combination with an anti PD-1 (checkpoint inhibitor) and is showing an increased efficacy in animals with a greater number of responders. Historically in these cases, checkpoint inhibitors work well, but only in 25-30 percent of patients. With ImmunoMet's compound, the preclinical response rate is proving to be much higher.

"Our distinguishing factor is the utilization of cellular metabolism," Ben explained. "Most cancer cells use glycolysis, but some resistant tumors use an OXPHOS pathway for generating energy. We're attacking the energy generation of a cancer cell, and therefore it stops replication, so it starves the cancer so it can no longer grow."  

When asked if being at JLABS has contributed to its success, Ben believes the JLABS model is a perfect fit. "Being in an incubator environment has allowed a very small team of people to progress the science because they can just focus on the science. Our rapid progression occurred because we were able to step into a preexisting infrastructure. The research team could focus on the science, and I could focus on building out our leadership team to get us to this phase." 

Ben's passion and determination was obvious throughout our conversation, and when I asked him what advice he'd give to budding entrepreneurs he said:

"Perseverance is 90 percent of success in biotech. We are in an industry that's laden with failure, and the ability to keep going is what wins. You win in biotech and pharma by doing the smart experiments, killing drugs early that don't work, and pivoting to new opportunities.  Since you're likely to fail, the way to do it is to fail quickly, so you can get to the winning stuff. It's not the success ratio, it's the denominator."

If you ever find yourself in Houston, stop by JLABS @ TMC and ask for some time to chat with Ben. You won't regret it.

For more information about Immunomet, please visit www.immunomet.com.