As Global Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS (JLABS), Melinda Richter fosters the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies external Research & Development engine with more than 700 companies across biopharma, device, consumer, and health tech in 13 locations around the world. 

Tell us about your journey from Canada to Silicon Valley.

I grew up in northern Saskatchewan in a little village called Goodsoil, born in a house that was 846 square feet with my five brothers, three sisters, and my two parents. As you might imagine, life could be quite challenging, and I was determined to change my story.

I was fortunate to earn scholarships to study for my Bachelor of Commerce degree at University of Saskatchewan. After college, I landed a leadership development placement with Nortel Networks, where you rotate in different roles in different geographies and different business units around the world. Back then, in 1992, Nortel was the cool tech job to have. I learned a lot across the technology spectrum, but most importantly got to see the world. I went from being in the middle of nowhere, to being a globetrotter. 

While in Beijing, I was bit by a bug and landed in the International Health Clinic, and then a local hospital. After 24 hours, the doctors came in and said, ‘there’s nothing more we can do for you.’ I was frustrated by the fact the day before, our team was focused on how to order a soda from the vending machine with our cell phones, yet here I was in the hospital and they couldn’t take a blood test and figure out what I had. This pretty basic healthcare gap was glaring. I vowed that if I survived, I would dedicate my life to innovation for healthcare. Obviously, I made it, and I started thinking about how to solve the problem of healthcare innovation. I quit my very comfortable corporate job and moved to the home of biotech, San Francisco. It was there the model that is now called JLABS was born—and with it my entrepreneurial drive. When meeting with Johnson & Johnson, we realized our complementary strengths: their global reach and healthcare expertise, and my entrepreneurial model. Across the life sciences, together we could help change the face of healthcare innovation. 

The theme of this issue is “expat Canadian women driving change.” What has “driving change” meant to you over the course of your career?
It’s so important to tell our stories, to embrace our unique stories. Telling the stories of Canadian women driving change is vital; people can see themselves in those stories and know that they can do it, too.

At JLABS, we’ve always measured the number of women in leadership roles because you do what you measure. Because of that, we’ve seen the number of women in leadership roles grow to 31% of JLABS companies, as compared to an industry average of 1%.

To me, “driving change” means asking why. Why do we do things this way? If you really care about having an impact, if you really care about your mission, and if your mission is serving an important need—like saving lives or making lives better— then you never settle for just “going along.”

JLABS was created to solve the challenges we saw in commercializing within the life science industry, which became glaringly clear when compared to the tech industry. In the life science industry, it takes at least a year to get a building with specialized infrastructure, permits and licenses, specialized capital equipment, and a special ops team to even start building a proof of concept—and but you need a proof of concept to get the funding to get your infrastructure in place.  So, we created JLABS to be platform to leapfrog innovation; a manufacturing engine of early-stage life science companies. We started by asking how can we make this much more efficient and much more effective?’ And so, I think the goal is to always be curious, to always be hungry, to always ask yourself: why

What is one of the most memorable moments from your career so far?

Recently we signed a partnership with a global leader in pediatric medicine and research, the Children’s National Hospital, to create JLABS @ Washington, DC. Set in this remarkable location, the historic Walter Reed Army Medical Center, we had an opportunity to bring it back to its original purpose of serving patients by creating an interdisciplinary campus that represents the journey from bench to bedside. 

JLABS @ Washington, DC will house up to 50 start-up companies from across the pharmaceutical, medical device, consumer and health technology sectors. We came together with a number of partners and asked, ‘how can we translate new ideas and technologies into impactful patient care, particularly for our underserved patient populations of babies and children?’ 

Because it’s based in our nation’s capital, we also established a public-private collaboration with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to help ensure a healthier, safer future for the world’s population. We were so taken with their mission to provide solutions against 21st century health security threats, like biological, radiological, nuclear, and chemical attacks, in addition to pandemics, and epidemics. At the time we signed that partnership, we had no idea that COVID-19 was around the corner. Turned out we were so prescient about the need to partner to tackle such enormous threats, and yet, we were so far behind. Now that we’ve all seen the need, I hope we can enable innovators around the world to help us prevent and address the next threat.

Healthcare is obviously an important priority around the world right now. What advice would you give to healthcare startups?

As an industry, we are committed to not only look at the gaps in care today, but to think about how we’re delivering that care. People want and need many different ways to access care, which has been made all the more clear over this last year with COVID. My advice for healthcare startups is look at all of those gaps through that lens of health equity. Who is being underserved? What are the gaps, not just in products and services, but in access? There are huge business opportunities. Innovating with empathy can enhance and save lives.

I’m a judge for the Bloom Burton Awards, and I’ve reviewed some amazing Canadian digital health companies that recognized the gap in the market and innovated to deliver care differently. I believe healthcare innovation is where Canada can really shine.

What is most important for our readers to know about you?

My parents were very socially minded; they always believed it was important to give back to the community, and I’ve carried that mindset with me. As Chair of the Board of California Life Sciences Association, last year I formed a sub-committee on Racial and Social Justice with the goal of identifying the actions the organization can take together to support the change needed to achieve equality. My plan outlines CLSA’s commitment and immediate steps to build a pipeline of diverse talent that will become life sciences future leaders; to hire, develop and retain under-represented talent across the industry; to fund diverse innovators; to build diverse boards; and to provide access to and coverage for care.

I believe that by fostering a more diverse industry, we can spark solutions for a better, healthier world. 

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