Johnson & Johnson opens innovation lab in Toronto

Incubator facility will work with up to 50 Canadian startups on smart health projects


Johnson & Johnson is joining tech giants like Facebook and Airbnb in the MaRS Discovery District by launching an incubator facility that will work with up to 50 Canadian startups on smart health projects.

JLabs @ Toronto, as it’s called, will take up 40,000 square feet and will immediately be home to 22 startups. The initiative is funded through J&J Innovation, a division that aims to facilitate collaboration between entrepreneurs and the world’s sixth largest consumer packaged goods company. The Ontario government has also contributed close to $20 million in funding.

In exchange for a fee and application process, JLabs offers startups a range of professional services including laboratory equipment, office space and in-house consulting on funding and business strategy.

Melinda Richter, head of JLABS, told Canadian Grocer‘s sister publication Marketing the company was primarily interested in any startup whose work is addressing an important medical need, and its involvement with the facility could start small and grow over time. Beyond the office and lab space, Johnson & Johnson will also have in-house “science scouts” that could potentially form deals with the various entrepreneurs. Those deals could range from a short-term contract for a proof-of-concept to a more traditional equity stake or licensing arrangement.

“When companies come in it’s a no-strings attached model. We don’t have any first rights,” she said. “We want them to have the freedom to build equity, to build value on their own.”

Brands are increasingly recognizing the value of the startup community and finding new ways to work with them. For example, Mondelēz International is working with several entrepreneurs as part of its Shopper Futures program, while RBC has set up its own facility in Silicon Valley to get closer to tech talent.

The whole idea behind JLabs is to recognize that innovation does not always come from within an organization’s own walls, Richter said. “When the ideas come from the outside, though, there can be a lot more hurdles to get to a solution.”

JLabs can speed up the process not only with its own resources, but by introducing startups to partners. IBM, for example, will be able to provide selected startups with access to its Watson analytics software and Bluemix, a platform for hosting applications in the cloud.

In a way, Richter said JLabs approached startups who want to be part of the incubator like a venture capitalist, looking the customer needs being met, the science and technology involved and the team.

“Most companies will say they’re able to accomplish in one year what it had taken four years to do before,” she said. “For us, it’s really meaningful to see their evolution.”

And while it might not seem at all similar to more traditional marketing techniques, Richter said JLABS is a highly effective way for Johnson & Johnson to market itself — perhaps as effective or more effective than running ads or sponsoring events. “Those things are all still important, but we see a real benefit from investing our resources and time around providing value to these innovation communities,” she said.

The initial startups in JLabs includes DNAstack, which offers a way to store, manage and analyze genomics data, and Immune Biosolutions, which uses antibodies in chickens for medical research purposes.

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