“In the nucleus of trillions of cells in your body, there are 23 pairs of chromosomes that comprise a genome. There are about 6 billion letters in a human genome, that collectively spell out a sort of molecular blueprint. A mutation of just a single letter in that genetic blueprint can literally change your life.”
This is the succinct raison d'être outlined on the website of Toronto-based DNAstack, a company that develops cutting-edge technologies to help scientists discover and treat the causes of genetic diseases. Amazing, isn’t it? If the human genome is a story, a minor “typo” can result in a life-threatening disease.
It was one of these genetic mistakes that presented DNAstack Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder Marc Fiume’s best friend with a devastating diagnosis – cystic fibrosis, an inherited, incurable, and life-threatening disorder. Fiume took this personal tragedy in stride, honoring his friend by using his story as the inspiration for a new company that would give doctors and patients a leg up on such illnesses.
Thus, DNAstack, a cloud-based platform for genomics data storage, bioinformatics, and sharing was born with the goal of helping researchers find the cause of genetic disease, clinicians diagnose those diseases, and pharmaceutical companies design treatments faster and with more precision than ever before.
And since launching its cloud platform in October 2016, DNAstack is barreling full speed ahead on the road to doing just that – strategically partnering with tech and life science giants along the way. Google, which has embraced DNAstack as an extension of its cloud platform, and Johnson & Johnson Innovation, which last June welcomed DNAstack to its JLABS @ Toronto facility, are just two such examples.
For Fiume, these relationships are “very intentional” and give his company the freedom to “focus on product not sales.” “With JLABS, we have the nimbleness of a startup but the resources of a big company, which allows us to make a big impact quickly,” said Fiume. Among these resources is Rebecca Yu, former Head of JLABS Canada, whom Fiume describes as one of his “biggest champions.”
With its fresh ideas and knack for grabbing hold of opportunities, DNAstack has expanded quickly – doubling its size, launching two new products, and obtaining non-dilutive financing in its short time at JLABS @ Toronto. The company has also successfully established itself at the forefront of one the hottest (and most important) trends in bioinformatics: democratization of access to genomic data.
While DNAstack has always been free for researchers, earlier this year, the company launched “Workflows,” an application for scalable, reproducible bioinformatics workflows based on open standards. Per DNAstack, Workflows enables anyone with an internet connection to run any genomics data analysis pipeline at any scale – a game changer that is already accelerating research in cancer, autism, and rare disease.
Fiume is quick to point out, however, that despite its early success, his company (like any other) has faced challenges.
“The most difficult thing for DNAstack is breaking down traditional mindsets in government and healthcare to make way for the adoption of new, vastly superior technologies that will drastically improve and save lives,” said Fiume. “The reasons why traditional music, video, and bookstores no longer exist are the same reasons that we will see a revolution of health through digitalization.”
In the face of such obstacles, Fiume leans on his team, whom he says are his “most valuable resources.” When asked for his top piece of advice for budding life science entrepreneurs, he says simply “focus, and regularly refocus, [your team] on what matters.”
As a relatively new venture ourselves, in the trenches with our residents to address the world’s most pressing healthcare challenges, we at JLABS couldn’t agree more. We can’t wait to see the additional success the next year brings for DNAstack, and look forward to supporting Fiume and his team every step of the way!
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.
“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.
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.