In Good Company

In Good Company: JLabs' Melinda Richter finds a new life in healing

Close brush with death prompts high-flier to quit tech job to work with entrepreneurs in life sciences

Ms Melinda Richter, head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLabs, knows something about close brushes with death. And it seems to run in the family.

She is the daughter of an emigre farmer who had escaped from Nazi Germany's occupation of Austria in 1938. He was diagnosed with a brain tumour at age seven, just as the family arrived in their new home, Canada, as stowaways.

He survived, to eventually build a new life on state-allotted land in a tiny settlement called Goodsoil in remote Saskatchewan, where Ms Richter was born and raised, along with eight siblings.

Several decades later, Ms Richter herself was on a Beijing hospital bed, unsure if she would live to see the next day.

Recruited out of college by Nortel Networks, she had been in China on a leadership development programme and was due to attend a conference at a university in Beijing. Dropped off at the gates, she needed to take a short walk through the woods, where she got bitten by a toxic insect that sent her immediately to hospital.

With no clue as to how to treat the disease, doctors advised her to prepare for the worst.

Ms Melinda Richter, 47, is now head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLabs, which looks to catalyse innovation and accelerate it by providing infrastructure and resources that mimic some of what is available to J&J scientists.
Ms Melinda Richter, 47, is now head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLabs, which looks to catalyse innovation and accelerate it by providing infrastructure and resources that mimic some of what is available to J&J scientists. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

"Out of college, I had wanted to go where everyone was going, which was the tech sector," she recalled to me recently.

"Tech was cool, and there were lots of money to be made. But here I was, not sure if I would wake up the next morning. I was struck by the irony that while just the previous day my team was figuring out how to get a soda from the vending machine with a cellphone, there wasn't a simple blood test good enough to identify my disease."

In some ways, JLabs, the health incubator of Johnson & Johnson, the world's largest healthcare company, was conceived that day, although it was birthed through a circuitous route.

Ms Richter quit her Nortel job to move to California so as to work with entrepreneurs involved in life sciences, accepting a significantly reduced lifestyle along the way.

There, she founded a company called Prescience International, focusing on accelerating the commercialisation of science by operating life science and clean technology centres of innovation, along with institutes and foundations - one of the first such established in the United States.

The Prescience innovation centre portfolio now includes the San Jose BioCube, the Environmental Business Cluster and Janssen Labs.

Eventually, Prescience was merged with J&J after several meetings with the giant healthcare company's top officials.

"They had the same passions as I had," says the 47-year-old Ms Richter, of J&J. "They said, 'let's do something together'."

JLabs now has facilities on both coasts of the US - "because great ideas come from everywhere" - and has opened its first outside the country, in Toronto, Canada.

Who knows, there might be one in Singapore some day.

Several global cities are under evaluation and Singapore is one, says Ms Richter, who is due to be in Asia twice again this year.

Singapore ticks many boxes - infrastructure, the quality of potential partners available and ambition.

  • Fast facts

  • MELINDA RICHTER

    Ms Melinda Richter is head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLabs. She is 47.

    Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, she holds a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Saskatchewan and an MBA from Insead in France.

    Ms Richter is an active board member and treasurer of the California Life Sciences Association.

    Prior to joining JLabs, she was founder and chief executive officer of Prescience International, an award-winning firm dedicated to accelerating research to the patient.

    Prior to starting Prescience, Ms Richter held posts across a variety of functional areas with Nortel Networks, in locations such as the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, New York, Toronto, London, Hong Kong and Beijing.

    THE COMPANY

    JLabs is the incubator division of Johnson & Johnson, the world's biggest healthcare company.

    Based in San Diego, California, and now into its sixth year, its vision is to provide a capital-efficient and flexible platform where emerging companies can transform the scientific discoveries of today into the breakthrough healthcare products of tomorrow. Parent company J&J reported full-year sales of US$72 billion (S$98.3 billion) last year.

"But I have a lot of stakeholders I need to carry with me as I figure out the right location and the timing. It is a process. Every JLabs we do is like raising a child."

Start-up companies dream of having both the deep pockets of an established company and the nimbleness of a Silicon Valley incubator. And that is what Ms Richter says she has attempted with JLabs as it approaches its sixth anniversary.

Beginning with the premise that you do not need to be in Silicon Valley to be a successful entrepreneur - "you can be a hero in your home town" - and that innovation resides as much outside big companies like J&J as it does inside, JLabs looks to catalyse innovation and accelerate it.

To do that, it provides infrastructure and resources that mimic some of what's available to J&J scientists themselves, saving an aspiring inventor hundreds of thousands of dollars in sunk costs. For instance, half of a 40,000 sq ft JLabs facility would be common space, with the rest comprising dry labs, wet labs and office modules.

Ms Richter says it is like joining a gym - start with a membership, put it on your credit card, and you are on your way.

If a project in, say, therapeutics looks promising, J&J science leads will step in to evaluate and see if it is worth "onboarding" it with in-house research. Alternatively, they might organise funds to do a critical next-level experiment - a hundred thousand dollars and three months' more time to see it through, perhaps.

If a device appears to have potential, deal teams may step in to help to take it to market or see what's the best way to take the science forward. "The idea is to get over that Valley of Death that usually kills things before they get started and, hopefully, provide a comprehensive solution for a twinkle in someone's eye to become a credible company in the market."

Ms Richter declines to provide numbers about her operating budget or say precisely how it is deployed, citing company confidentiality and intellectual property issues. But she says there will be no shortage of funds, as long as a project is backed by good science and tackles a critical, unmet medical need and has a "rock star" team - not in the Silicon Valley sense of successful serial entrepreneurs but dynamic young teams matched with J&J greybeard mentors who know the data they need to see and have a sense of the industry. "It is incredible to see what happens," she says. "They knock it out of the park."

Ms Richter cites the case of Xycrobe Therapeutics, a resident company in JLabs, San Diego, started by two Yale alumni.

Internal mentors pointed Xycrobe founder Thomas Hitchcock to unmet needs in skin treatments for conditions like psoriasis and acne. If their work proceeds well, JLabs will fund follow-through experiments and there could even be a collaboration with J&J down the line if the science gets proven.

With some 10,000 diseases that as yet have no cure and plenty of room to improve on current treatment regimes, not to speak of work needed on preventive solutions, collaboration is the only way to speed up research and fund it. This is all the more so because medical research, unlike say, the IT field, tends to take far longer and the rewards are harder to come by.

For instance, while there are scores of tech billionaires, there are only three in life sciences, she notes. And partly because the rewards are rare, the tendency to reinvest in research isn't as strong as in the tech industry.

Viewed against the challenge, J&J's massive spending on research-more than US$10 billion (S$13.7 billion) annually - might seem piffling. Hence the need to reach deep into society for help.

In therapeutics, J&J focuses on some areas: oncology, particularly prostate and lung cancer, immunology, infectious diseases, cardiovascular and metabolics.

Ms Richter says a rare instance when she saw quick money was after two young men named Joe Payne and Pad Chivukula, who had been working on industrial biotech solutions, came to her with an idea to work for patients with rare diseases, using messenger and other RNA technology.

With US$50,000 between them, they left their jobs and applied to JLabs. Coached by J&J's biotech team, they raised US$30 million.

J&J's head of infectious diseases was enthused about the prospect of a single solution to the dozens of variants of hepatitis B, one of the 10 most debilitating diseases.

Millions more in investments poured in. With some more mentoring, Mr Payne's Arcturus Therapeutics signed a US$1.6 billion rare disease pact with California's Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical.

"They went from quitting jobs to US$2 billion worth of deals in 2 1/2 years' time," says Ms Richter. "That is tech time in life sciences and that is what we are trying to do."

Sitting in the heart of a region that is home to 60 per cent of the world's population, Singapore, with its racial diversity, is well placed to find a role for itself in health sciences, she says. Lung cancer is a major disease in China.

Likewise, 250 million people in the Asia-Pacific suffer from diabetes and that figure is projected to rise to 550 million in China and India alone by 2030.

"Diabetes manifests differently in Asians, compared with Caucasian populations," she says.

"There is a huge Asian population all over the world. If you can figure it out locally, you can export it globally."

What about Asia's ancient wisdom, such as traditional Chinese medicine and India's ayurveda? Ms Richter doesn't mock these systems, but points out that J&J is very much a science-based organisation and will always try to validate these treatments from that perspective.

Still, she notes that geneticist Douglas Wallace, who did pioneering work in the study of human mitochondrial DNA and was this year's winner of the Dr Paul Janssen Award for biomedical research, recently acknowledged that the Chinese were on to something when they discussed the human cell and said it was all about energy.

"There's always something to be learnt from these things."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 08, 2017, with the headline 'JLabs' Richter finds a new life in healing'. Print Edition | Subscribe