It is just after heavy snowfall and the air in Shanghai is already chilly. However, the atmosphere of innovation and entrepreneurship at Johnson & Johnson Innovation Asia Pacific is not cooling down this winter.
The Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies (Johnson & Johnson) has built a reputation in China as a pioneer among foreign healthcare companies in actively exploring innovation. Ever since its establishment eight years ago, Johnson & Johnson Innovation has created a hub for innovation in China through its base in Shanghai, and it continues to expand its efforts, from the opening of its first incubator in Asia Pacific, JLABS @ Shanghai in 2019, to becoming the first foreign-funded open innovation platform recognized by the Shanghai Municipal government in 2020. What is the collaboration model that Johnson & Johnson Innovation provides for its partners? How do they work together to develop the innovation ecosystem? And what is its development and outlook for the future?
With these questions in mind, we sat down with Dr. Dan Wang, Regional Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Asia Pacific, alongside collaboration partner, Dr. Zhenkun Ma, Founder and CEO of TenNor Therapeutics. TenNor Therapeutics, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company, is a JLABS @ Shanghai resident company, and in 2020, entered into a research collaboration with Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., one of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson (Janssen). This agreement, facilitated by Johnson & Johnson Innovation, will see both parties utilize TenNor’s platform with the aim to create new molecular entities for the discovery of new therapies for nontuberculous mycobacterial pulmonary diseases (NTM-PD).
Would you tell us how Johnson & Johnson Innovation and TenNor Therapeutics came to work together?
Dan Wang: At Johnson & Johnson, we believe that a great idea can come from anywhere and that collaboration is vital to develop disruptive innovation. Leveraging Johnson & Johnson’s global scale, expertise and flexible collaboration model, we provide support for innovators at different R&D stages with the aim to expand and accelerate solutions that address the toughest healthcare challenges and improve the lives of people everywhere. Since our establishment in 2013, we have supported the development of the innovation ecosystem in Asia Pacific by connecting with innovators through our regional center in Shanghai and early innovation partnering teams located in Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore and Hong Kong SAR. Depending on where an idea is in its life cycle, our collaborators and partners can easily tap into our broad range of collaboration models and capabilities, including flexible, customized partnership models and collaborations; early-stage incubation, start-up services and mentorship through Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS (JLABS); and strategic venture capital investments through JJDC.
Our collaboration with TenNor Therapeutics is a typical case for us and shows our broad range of capabilities. On the one hand, TenNor is a JLABS @ Shanghai resident company receiving incubation support; and on the other hand, is also our collaboration partner in the pharmaceutical field, through the agreement between TenNor and Janssen Pharmaceutical to discover new treatment modalities for NTM-PD. By combining the scientific know-how and background intellectual property of TenNor and Janssen’s insights on NTM-PD therapies and treatments, this collaboration aims to improve patient outcomes. So far, there has been great progress.
Zhenkun Ma: TenNor Therapeutics is a clinical-stage company with a sharp focus on the discovery and development of differentiated products aiming to address unmet needs in infectious disease areas, such as bacterial infection and dysbiosis, with indications targeting medical device associated bacterial biofilm infections, liver cirrhosis hepatic encephalopathy and helicobacter pylori infection. Multiple products are currently in the later stages of clinical trials. In 2020, we officially joined the JLABS @ Shanghai resident company portfolio and announced our collaboration with Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. Through this relationship, we have seen many opportunities to interact and engage with other resident companies, scientists from subsidiaries of Johnson & Johnson, as well as potential investors. Through our collaboration agreement, we have extended our pipeline to the field of NTM-PD. By leveraging Johnson & Johnson’s global R&D platform, we have seen improvements to the quality of the project and accelerated implementation. We are very excited to have Johnson & Johnson as a partner at the initial stage of this project.
How can collaboration make more of an impact than working alone?
Dan Wang: In an age of increased economic growth, urbanization and aging populations, we see the growing unmet need for better medical service, especially amid COVID-19, and we are more aware than ever of the significance of breaking boundaries and collaborating to drive more innovative solutions. Whether it is a start-up or a global health industry leader, nobody can do it alone, and no company has a monopoly on innovation. We all need partners.
Johnson & Johnson Innovation is dedicated to connecting local early-stage entrepreneurs to China’s unique ecosystem to accelerate innovation and to bring truly impactful innovation. We are providing more than just the combination of shared and private lab and office spaces, equipment, value-added solutions, education and business services; we are providing access to an ecosystem that could help transform ideas from concept to reality. This is the foundation on which Johnson & Johnson Innovation facilitated the collaboration between TenNor and Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc.
When evolving an idea into a product, a technology needs to be tempered by time. During this process, we need foresight to see whether a product has market competitiveness. Through this type of collaboration with TenNor, we aim to turn more great ideas into the next potential breakthrough solutions and products with more speed.
Zhenkun Ma: I totally agree with Dr. Dan Wang. My collaboration with Johnson & Johnson can trace back years to when I was working in the United States, where Johnson & Johnson was seen to be a leader in the healthcare industry, and also an enterprise with strong strategic vision. Through working closely with the company, we feel that even more and have come to recognize Johnson & Johnson’s role as an open-minded global innovation leader. As its collaboration partner, we not only have access to facilities such as offices, labs and equipment, but also the support of experts from across the company in aspects such as technology, business, and management. These things combined are of great help to a start-up.
To give you an example, last year, Johnson & Johnson initiated a talent development program named “EXPAND”, which is intended to provide opportunities for Johnson & Johnson employees from different business sectors to work part-time at start-ups collaborating with the company. TenNor was pleased to be involved with this program and from our experience, it really was a win-win for both parties. The talent from Johnson & Johnson had an opportunity to cultivate entrepreneurship, while helping us start-ups develop by bringing their expertise and experience to inspire new ideas
How do you consider the current opportunities and challenges for innovation, and how does this impact your collaboration?
Dan Wang: It is an age of opportunities and challenges, and the healthcare industry in China is facing unprecedented growth. With strong government support, favorable policies and the increasing contribution of capital, the healthcare industry is developing rapidly. In addition, positive economic trends, a growing talent pool and the increased need for high-quality healthcare in China all contribute to a booming innovation ecosystem.
To leverage these opportunities, there is a growing need to collaborate, and we are always looking for partners. Despite our strong pipeline and talent, we believe that no one can do it alone. Especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to connect with early-stage innovators more quickly, and we hope that they can more effectively get in touch with us through more channels. We know that our collaboration partners are working throughout China in innovation hotspots such as the Yangtze River Delta and the Greater Bay Area where the ecosystem is booming, so instead of asking innovators to come to us, we embed ourselves in these innovation hotspots around the world. Our early innovation partnering teams proactively explore and drive collaboration opportunities on the ground. Combining our global influence, expertise and unique local advantages, Johnson & Johnson Innovation Asia Pacific helps connect partners across Asia Pacific’s innovation ecosystem to flex and shape their innovations to bridge scientific gaps and help unlock meaningful improvements in human health.
Zhenkun Ma: We are very lucky to be in the golden era of China’s innovative new drug development. As a drug discovery and development start-up, challenges are multifront. As a long-distance runner, I often see the similarities between new drug discovery and a marathon – neither can be accomplished through a sprint. New drug discovery has the characteristics of a marathon – a lengthy timeline, major investment and high risk. Though we have certain advantages in terms of technology and resources, the demands of fundraising, marketing capability and human resources increases exponentially with the growth of the company. By collaborating with Johnson & Johnson and leveraging their resources and support, we feel we can better overcome the challenges.
What do you look towards in your future?
Zhenkun Ma: Our goal is to develop new products that are beneficial for patients in China and the world. To realize this goal, we see the importance of further collaboration with Johnson & Johnson and leveraging their resources to accelerate our development. In the near future, we are focused on accelerating our collaboration with Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. with the goal of developing new drugs to benefit patients suffering with NTM-PD around the world.
Dan Wang: The recent development of the healthcare industry in China provides bright prospects for innovators to have an impact. As written in China’s strategic 14th Five-Year Plan and the 2021 Shanghai Government’s Work Report, “development driven by innovation” is at the core and there is strong support for foreign enterprises’ commitment to innovation in China, which give us great inspiration. In the future, with the strong support from government, our partners, the innovation ecosystem, and leveraging all of our Johnson & Johnson Innovation resources, we are motivated to building a stronger network in China. We are committed to fully supporting the growth and development of innovators around the world; to combine ideas, technologies and resources in new ways; and to promote, cultivate and accelerate the work of innovators; so that together, we can facilitate the next potential breakthrough that could improve the lives of patients and people around the world.
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