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Meet Allan Miranda, the New Head of JLABS @ Toronto

Both scientific discovery and entrepreneurship are about building on the innovations, successes, and failures that came before and using them as a foundation for new (and hopefully fruitful) explorations. For over five years, JLABS has occupied the sweet spot at this intersection, giving future business leaders the tools and expertise they need to unlock their vision.

Nowhere is this more true than in the burgeoning Canadian biotech ecosystem. In 2016, following the success of its U.S. locations, Johnson & Johnson Innovation saw an opportunity and established JLABS @ Toronto. The goal was to use Toronto as a launch pad to help transform Canada and its young entrepreneurs into a world-class biotech hub. It’s in this spirit of new beginnings that I am very honored to introduce myself as the new Head of JLABS @ Toronto.
In the three short months I’ve been in this role, I’ve been astounded by the number of companies in our ecosystem and the shear breadth of innovation that has occurred in the sectors we cover: pharmaceuticals, medical devices, consumer and health tech. The challenges these emerging biotech businesses face are familiar to me because I’ve been on their side of the desk and grappled with them myself.

It’s as if all the paths I’ve taken over the course of my career converge here. I had always been interested in the business side of science and after obtaining my Ph.D., I leapt headfirst into the often-unpredictable world of Canadian biotech startups working at a University Technology Transfer Office. I saw firsthand the obstacles a company faces in terms of access to talent, capital, and forming a relationship with a corporate partner. Like the scores of small businesses that come through our doors at JLABS, these companies were all looking for a way to properly scale themselves as they manage cash flow and work to meet the ambitious near-term milestones they set for themselves.

I then went on to obtain an MBA and worked in business development for two biotech companies, living the stress of trying to partner with big pharma while managing investors and cash flow. Decision making at small companies is instinctual and while you own the decisions, you are always wondering “is this the right way to do it?” Just as I convinced myself that I would be in the start-up biotech arena for life, I got a call from Johnson and Johnson to work in Business Development for Janssen Canada. For 13 years I worked in Business Development, Marketing and Market Access absorbing how a big company approaches product development and commercialization, as well as developing skills in leadership and collaboration.

As the head of JLABS @ Toronto, I hope to bring both my start-up and big company experiences to the table, helping companies at JLABS flourish on their own terms.  I firmly believe that the JLABS model is exactly what the start-ups I worked for could have used. JLABS offerings like the Investor Hub and JPALs fill a gap that all start-up companies can benefit from by providing access to capital and valuable expertise. Start-ups also need the freedom to develop their technology and solve business problems in a way that reflects their size and available resources.  The JLABS no-strings attached model allows entrepreneurs the freedom to operate and do what is best for their company as they completely retain their intellectual property and there are no rights of first refusal.

Looking back on the progress JLABS has made in Toronto these past two years is invigorating. We are very proud of all the groundbreaking Canadian companies we’ve worked with. Companies like Zucara Therapeutics, a recent resident developing the first once-daily therapeutic to prevent hypoglycemia in diabetes patients, DNAstack who created an advanced platform for genomics data storage, bioinformatics, and sharing in the cloud, and DoseBiome who is conducting fascinating oral microbiome research aiming at reducing disease-causing bacteria in the mouth while promoting healthy bacteria, among many, many more (we already have 11 alumni companies and currently have 47 resident companies, with room to grow).

As we continue to educate the ecosystem on the JLABS model, we are also getting interest from start-ups outside the Toronto area, and have even had companies in other Provinces inquire or take residence at JLABS. Our one-desk, one-lab-bench scalable model has appeal to these companies so they can establish a presence in Toronto and avail themselves of the value of JLABS while continuing to have a presence in their community.
I am very excited to be a part of the JLABS Toronto team and look forward to growing JLABS and continuing to build Toronto into the booming biotech hub I know it can be.

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Photo gallery
Wearables in Health: It Is All in the Data video teaser

Wearables in Health: It Is All in the Data

CRISPR & Gene Editing in Fighting Infectious Diseases video teaser

CRISPR & Gene Editing in Fighting Infectious Diseases

Science 1st: Combating Infectious Diseases video teaser

Science 1st: Combating Infectious Diseases

Current Challenges & Successes in Fighting Viruses video teaser

Current Challenges & Successes in Fighting Viruses

Early Virus Detection video teaser

Early Virus Detection

The Role of Wearable Technology in Early Detection video teaser

The Role of Wearable Technology in Early Detection

What’s the Deal? Canadian Biotech VC’s and How They’re Navigating COVID-19 video teaser

What’s the Deal? Canadian Biotech VC’s and How They’re Navigating COVID-19

The Power of the Microbiome in the Fight Against Disease video teaser

The Power of the Microbiome in the Fight Against Disease

Toronto QuickFire Winner Avoids the Burn

Imagine knowing the exact moment your sunscreen stops working, making painful sunburns and skin damage a thing of the past. That’s exactly what Suncayr, a startup out of JLABS @ Toronto is trying to do with its product SPOT. According to Suncayr CEO, Andrew Martinko, SPOT is the perfect complement to a preexisting sun care regimen. According to Mr. Martinko, the SPOT, which is a round sticker applied to a highly visible area on the skin, changes color once the sunscreen is no longer effective signaling to the user that it’s time to reapply.

Suncayr’s goal is simple: to make it easier for people to improve their health by helping them better manage UV protection.

“Sunscreen is a great tool when used properly,” said Andrew Martinko, CEO and cofounder of Suncayr. “But understanding how the sunscreen protection varies in different environments is what makes SPOT different.”

The Suncayr team believes they have found the secret to mimicking the skin behavior in varying environments to ensure the maximum effectiveness of the sunscreen.

“Our biggest challenge has been in the development process. We thought we’d figured it out, and then we’d introduce a new environment and it wouldn’t be as effective,” said Martinko. “Wavy water versus stagnant water, sweating versus wiping the skin with a towel: all of these things factor in to how long your sunscreen protection lasts.”

Suncayr came to JLABS @ Toronto as a QuickFire Challenge winner in 2016, and found it was a perfect fit for the growing company.

“JLABS was ideal for us as we needed sophisticated lab facilities in order to run experiments, and with the QuickFire Challenge win, we were able to subsidize rent, which was huge for our growing startup,” explained Mr. Martinko. “Additionally, we received great mentorship and guidance that we could not have gotten anywhere else.”

The JLABS @ Toronto team connected Suncayr to the Johnson & Johnson Consumer sun care team, which allowed access to internal subject matter experts and certain UV testing equipment that was not available at JLABS.

“The entire JLABS @ Toronto team and Stefanie Dhanda in the Boston IC have been absolutely fantastic for us,” said Mr. Martinko. “The connections they made for us internally and the access to the Johnson & Johnson sun care team has been pivotal in our development plans.”

Suncayr is launching SPOT in Australia in 2017 with plans to launch in North America in 2018. Most recently, the Suncayr team was featured in the  Forbes under 30 series.

Congratulations Suncayr!

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CATCHING “GENETIC TYPOS” WITH TORONTO-BASED DNASTACK

“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!

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The very real ways that artificial intelligence is reshaping medicine

A Q&A with Dr. Guna Rajagopal, Global Head of Computational Sciences, Discovery Sciences, at Janssen Research & Development

Artificial intelligence presents boundless opportunities to transform human health. Already, it’s aiding in the discovery of new drugs and helping to create better, faster medical diagnostics. It’s not difficult to imagine a time in the near future when A.I. is able to reliably predict and intercept disease before symptoms ever arise.  

However, with so much hype surrounding A.I., it’s easy to forget that we’ve only scratched the surface in understanding what’s possible with machine learning, and how it may be applied to health care, says Guna Rajagopal, Ph.D., Global Head of Computational Sciences, Discovery Sciences, at Janssen Research & Development.

Dr. Rajagopal leads a team of data scientists who are using high-performance computing to assist in the creation of new drugs and health care products. He’s also currently working with Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS to evaluate nominees to the Artificial Intelligence for Drug Discovery QuickFire Challenge, which will award up to $100,000 in grants and one year of JLABS residency to individuals or teams with the best ideas for using artificial intelligence to advance health care.

With the excitement of the QuickFire Challenge selections looming (expect an announcement in mid-December), we spoke with Dr. Rajagopal to learn more about how A.I. is changing the future of medicine.

Q. Artificial intelligence means different things to different people. How do you define A.I., especially as it relates to health care?

A. A.I. is the science of building and programming a machine that’s able to imitate human cognition. The machine can learn from experience and generalize, which is where the intelligence part comes in. Most of us already interact with A.I. in our daily lives, whether it’s Amazon giving us personalized suggestions of products we might like, to real-time alerts of potential credit card fraud. Regardless of the industry, the purpose of A.I. is to guide humans to make informed decisions based on enormous amounts of data. As it pertains to health care, this data may include an individual’s genetic and environmental factors, activity trackers and bio-sensors, blood samples and electronic health records. The amount of health and genomic data that we’re generating is growing exponentially every year. While our A.I. tools are improving by the day, we also have to recognize that big-data research is still very much a nascent field. We have a lot to learn.

Q. What are some of the biggest transformations that A.I. will bring to health care?

A. It’s impossible to predict all the ways that A.I. will change health and medicine over time, but I believe it will be truly fundamental and sweeping. I’ll defer to the famous quote from American futurist Roy Amara: "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run." This is true of A.I., just as it has been for other transformational technologies, such as GPS. Can you imagine life without GPS? I can’t. Yet, in the early days, GPS was expensive and difficult to deploy, no one foresaw all the ways it would simplify our lives and help society. If you look at the impact of A.I. for health care, you have to consider not only the how it relates to the development of new medicines and faster clinical decision-making, but also elements such as pharmacy and supply chain — how we optimize our resources to get the right products to patients most efficiently.

Q. ‘Precision medicine’ just may be the health care buzzword of the decade. How might A.I. impact the development of drugs that treat patients in a more precise way?

A. We’ve only begun to realize the benefits of precision medicine to treat disease, with notable early successes in cancer. The underlying idea is that we can use patients’ personalized information, such as genetic or molecular profiles, to determine what treatment approaches will work best for them as individuals. As we move forward, our success in advancing precision medicine will depend not just on collecting and storing vast datasets on diverse patient populations, but also on our ability to develop sophisticated machine-learning algorithms that can mine this data to answer specific health care questions. How do we find the “signals” in the noise that lead to actionable insights? What are the genetic variants that matter? Why is it that disease manifests itself in one patient, but not in another? These are extremely complex questions. We see A.I. as a tool to help us analyze these factors and bring clarity to patients earlier in the process.    

Q. What about preventative health? Does A.I. have a role to play there?

A. Of course. Disease prevention is the holy grail. Technologies that enable early disease detection and interception will be truly game-changing, as we have seen that patient outcomes improve when disease is detected earlier. With A.I., when we are looking at large sets of patient data, we’re searching not just for markers of disease, but also for markers of health. These insights are extremely valuable in the context of drug development. 

Q. In the latest QuickFire Challenge for Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS, you’ve put a call out for entrepreneurs and innovators that are using artificial intelligence to advance drug discovery and development in some way. What do you hope comes as a result of this type of competition?

Even though Johnson & Johnson is among the world’s largest health care companies, we realize that we can’t do it all on our own. Our goal is to create an ecosystem of innovation around A.I. in health care, partnering with the best and thinking holistically about how solutions can be applied to various aspects of drug development and patient care. If you think end-to-end about our health care system — from the lab where drugs are created, to the patient’s bedside — the one thing that ties it all together is data. I’m optimistic about what A.I. can do to bring meaning to our growing pools of information, aiding in our ability to intercept, diagnose and treat disease.

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JLABS @ Toronto video teaser

JLABS @ Toronto

Introducing Health Tech @ JLABS

Introducing Health Tech @ JLABS

 

The tech and healthcare industries have been circling each other for years, but with recent headlines surrounding key partnerships and hiring trends, in addition to the rise of consumer tech, wearables, and wellness apps, it has never been more obvious that the convergence of the two industries is well underway.

At JLABS, we've experienced this convergence firsthand. Several of the more than 300 resident companies, both past and present, across our 10 sites are innovating in ways that cross both health and tech. To further encourage this trend, today I'm proud to announce Health Tech @ JLABS.

Through this new program, we will provide access to Johnson & Johnson Innovation's unparalleled healthcare expertise, and call upon our key technology partners through best-in-class communities, facilities, programming, and mentoring for this hybrid group of entrepreneurs. Health Tech @ JLABS will also provide unique insights on consumer, payor and provider pain points and the solutions they are seeking.

The program will provide expertise across four key areas:

  • Smart Devices for Therapy Delivery
  • Mobile Wellness Management
  • Digital Disease Interception & Prevention
  • Engagement with the Patient Consumer

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Education has always been a foundation for JLABS, and with this new focus, we will offer tailored programming specific to Health Tech. These programs aim to educate entrepreneurs on the healthcare landscape, provide access to partners in both healthcare and technology spaces to teach technical efficiencies, provide education on the FDA approval process, and which ultimately helps get solutions to people who need them.

In addition to this programming, we are also announcing the first of four QuickFire Challenges focused specifically on the Health Tech space. The first will be the Health Technology Innovator QuickFire Challenge: Mobile Wellness Behavior Management. We are searching for mobile solutions using health tech to intercept & prevent disease; deliver intelligence devices for therapy; collaborate with providers & payers, and provide accessible healthcare.

Winners will be accepted into the Health Tech @ JLABS program for one year with residence at a JLABS based on availability. For more information regarding the inaugural Health Tech @ JLABS QuickFire Challenge, please visit jlabs.tv/healthtech

At JLABS, we help entrepreneurs, scientists and now technologists navigate the trenches of being a startup in an industry dominated by large corporations by offering expertise, access and infrastructure through a no-strings-attached model. I am extremely excited about the potential of Health Tech, and will continue to push for the best and brightest to succeed.

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