Johnson and Johnson picks Penn for research node

Reflecting the main building at Pennovation Works, Maker Faire-goers talk inside the 13-foot geodesic dome titled "Nomadic Monument for Women in Robotics," created by designers Diedra Krieger and Gaby Alfaro at the converted DuPont Co. Philadelphia Works site, now a tech business incubator owned by the University of Pennsylvania. June 24, 2018 TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Work is underway on a “JPOD” telecom “networking hub” that is set to open this fall, connecting University of Pennsylvania researchers and area start-ups to funders and scientists at Johnson & Johnson, the New Jersey-based drug and medical-supply giant. All this networking will occur at the school’s Pennovation Works business incubator at 34th Street and Grays Ferry Avenue, the university said Wednesday in a statement.

The JPOD @ Philadelphia, and another at the University of Alberta, are a step below the nine JLABS research and startup centers that J&J has opened in venture capital hotbeds such as the San Francisco and Boston areas, New York, Houston, and Shanghai.  JLABS typically host dozens of drug or medical device development companies that J&J supports. The JPODs at Penn and Alberta will use secure telecom to hook professors and other business developers to J&J people at remote locations.

“A JLABS is a possibility in the future” at Penn, but JPODs are faster to implement, said Laurie Actman, a spokesperson for Penn. The JPOD will have permanent staff, she added.

The JPOD, which Penn calls “a collaboration between Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS,” and Penn, is a boost to the university’s efforts “to accelerate health care innovation and commercialization in Philadelphia and the region,” in “medical devices, pharmaceuticals, consumer and health technologies,” Penn said in its statement.

The move is a boost for Philadelphia’s biotech community: it gives J&J a way to “efficiently identify early work that merits more support and attention,” and gives the company “a serious, ongoing look at Philly discoveries for the first time,” said Roy Rosin, chief innovation officer at Penn Medical. “Entrepreneurs can access and benefit from the deeper resources located internationally, and if J&J sees something they like, which is now far more likely, additional investment and engagement can follow.” Rosin says fast contacts lead to efficient relationships: “When you’re confident in what you’re bringing to the table, engagement leads to bigger opportunities.”

Penn this year also committed $50 million to back companies launched by Penn professors, in a bid to make sure they grow in the Philadelphia area instead of moving to Boston and other biotech investment centers. So far, these include Penn professor Carl June’s Tmunity Therapeutics, along with Tycho Therapeutics and Carisma Therapeutics.

“There is a remarkable synergy between the Pennovation Center and the JLABS vision,” said Penn executive vice president Craig Carnaroli in a statement.

The JPOD will reduce “business, financial and operational obstacles,” added Dawn Bonnell, Penn’s vice provost for research.  “We envision JPOD@Philadelphia as a chief conduit for continuing to build the region’s innovation ecosystem.”

Even before the JPOD’s scheduled opening this fall, JLABS is soliciting “promising solutions” it may back, through a contest it calls the “JPOD@Philadelphia QuickFire Challenge,” to be launched “soon,” Penn says. More info is here.

Penn says the two-year-old, 23-acre Pennovation Works complex is now home to engineering, science and grad school research labs, the Penn-sponsored PCI Ventures investment fund, a 1776 coworking space, and operations of “85 companies and 350 innovators,” including projects and researchers sponsored by Qualcomm, Hershey, Comcast, Netronix, and Limelight Bio, and other companies as well as university-affiliated start-ups.