J&J Cuts Ribbon on Boston Innovation Center, Touts Startup Deals

6/27/13Follow @benthefidler

Johnson & Johnson has officially set up shop in Kendall Square.

Today is the day that Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) cuts the ribbon on its Boston Innovation Center, the latest step in a broad initiative by the New Brunswick, NJ-based drug giant to help drive biotech innovation in certain life sciences hotspots around the globe—and strike deals to fatten up its pipeline.

Within the past three months, J&J has opened similar innovation centers in London and Menlo Park, CA, and plans to christen a fourth in Shanghai, China, as well.

“Boston is essentially a carbon copy of Menlo Park and London, and will similarly be designed in Shanghai,” says Robert Urban, the former executive director of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, and the head of the new Boston center.

While the model is the same as the other sites, J&J’s Boston Innovation Center represents the first significant move the 127-year-old pharmaceutical company has made to put itself in the trenches in Cambridge. And J&J is opening it up with a bang, announcing partnerships with a research center (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York), two local startup biotech companies (Rodin Therapeutics and Vedanta Biosciences), and a non-profit organization (LabCentral), showing the breadth of exactly what it hopes to achieve.

“We are really on our way to taking off in Boston,” says Urban (pictured).

The Boston Innovation Center is designed to not only help local startup biotechs, medical device makers, and diagnostics companies get off the ground, but also give J&J an outlet to form a variety of early-stage partnerships, investments, and other deals that can ultimately help fill its pipeline down the road.

It will be staffed, generally speaking, with three types of groups: a team of J&J scientists that will work with local entrepreneurs, researchers, and startups to develop their ideas and assess how J&J could best help them move forward; a VC group backed by J&J’s considerable financial muscle that will help seed companies or contribute in more advanced funding rounds; and a business transaction team to help hammer out partnerships and collaborations, according to J&J research and development chief Paul Stoffels.

“We hope to make it simply much easier for innovators anywhere to begin to understand there is a mechanism by which [they] can collaborate with J&J,” Urban says.

The firm isn’t doing that by stampeding into Kendall Square. Stoffels says J&J has no plans to set up a sizeable, Big Pharma-like physical footprint anywhere in the area. The Boston Innovation Center itself consists of just roughly 9,000 square feet of office space on the seventh floor of One Cambridge Center in Kendall Square. J&J hopes to make an impact in other ways—by reaching out to innovators and helping them from the beginning with an open-door type of policy.

“The strength of the biotech and the academic community is that that environment fosters different ways of working and collaboration,” Stoffels says. “We’re not coming there with a massive number of labs—we’re coming there with a team working with the local entrepreneurs and the scientists to fund, and to collaborate.”

Those deals can take on a number of forms, be it research alliances, collaborations with academic centers, investments in startups, or otherwise.

“You have to be really flexible with how an entrepreneur wants to work,” Stoffels says. “It’s the flexibility of the team, and the approach, that allows us to bring all types of deals forward.”

That said, the Boston Innovation Center is focusing on early-stage research, meaning the deals it makes won’t be for anything that has already passed the proof-of-concept stage. That can be seen through the four transactions it has put together in conjunction with the opening of the center:

—Johnson & Johnson Development Corp., J&J’s venture capital subsidiary, has made an unspecified investment in a Boston-area biotech named Rodin Therapeutics that plans to use epigenetics—a field of biology based on the idea of switching genes on and off without altering the underlying DNA—to create drugs for neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Urban says Atlas Venture has been partnered with J&J “from the beginning” on Rodin.

—The fund has also invested in Vedanta Biosciences, a Boston-based, PureTech Ventures-backed startup focused on using microbes in the body to combat autoimmune and inflammatory diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

—Johnson & Johnson Innovation, the newly-spawned J&J division that is the parent of the innovation centers, has formed a research alliance with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. The two will share data and use bioinformatics to identify patient groups that would respond best to the treatments it is developing for IBD, according to Urban.

—Though it isn’t setting up its own labs, J&J is still helping to incubate startups. Janssen Labs, J&J’s San Diego-based incubator, has become a founding sponsor of LabCentral, a newly-minted non-profit organization in Kendall Square, expected to open in November, that will provide lab space to aspiring life sciences startups in the area. Johnson & Johnson Innovation and LabCentral will select certain life sciences companies—Stoffels says they must be working on something of “significant scientific innovation” —and give them fully-equipped lab space to perform experiments and develop their ideas. J&J will have an on-site partnering office to forge collaborations with tenants using the space, but it vows that there are no strings attached—innovators will have no obligation to work with J&J, much in the way they don’t at both Janssen Labs in San Diego and a similar initiative hatched in San Francisco.

“In San Diego and San Francisco, we have developed an entire environment for companies which makes it very easy for companies to start up,” Stoffels says. “Everything is done so that entrepreneurs with a minimal amount of cash can set up a company and do its experiments.”

Stoffels says there are plenty more deals on the way for the innovation center. Will they ultimately lead to a new crop of successful biotech startups in Cambridge? Even if J&J insists that it’s doing this more to spur innovation than simply help itself dig up new products, perhaps a look at its early-stage pipeline a few years from now will be the best way to find out.

Ben Fidler is Xconomy's Deputy Biotechnology Editor. You can e-mail him at bfidler@xconomy.com Follow @benthefidler

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  • Dr. Edgar Shriver

    How do i get in contact with Dr. Urban? Dr. Edgar Shriver, Coronary Bypass Devices LLC