Sharon Chan – Accelerating Innovation Through Collaboration
Apr 15, 2020
Dr Sharon Chan is Head of JLABS @ Shanghai at Johnson & Johnson Innovation. In this month’s Alumni Story, Sharon reflects on studying for a PhD at Oxford with a truly international cohort, the importance of building collaborations between pharma, medical device, consumer and health tech sectors, and how these collaborations are helping to tackle COVID-19.
Could you tell us about your time at the University of Oxford, and your BHF-funded PhD?
Oxford was incredible – a community of like-minded researchers, passionate about science, world class in talent and upholding the highest standards of integrity. As a student in the laboratory of Professor Stefan Neubauer at the Wellcome Trust Centre of Human Genetics, I was honoured to work with a diverse group of colleagues on creatine metabolism in failing hearts. The facilities were brand new, and I was Professor Neubauer’s first student in the UK under his first grant from the BHF. My PhD years taught me how to analyse a problem, speak publicly and collaborate – skills that I’ve been able to transfer to today’s business world.
What’s also embedded into my memory is the sheer number of countries where my colleagues were from, including Portugal, Spain, Germany, Poland, Iran, New Zealand and Australia, to name a few. Outside of the lab, I have fond memories having fun with my fellow PhD students and post-docs during ski trips to Lenzerheide, Switzerland, curry nights at Aziz, and Saturday morning presentations in front of Professor Sir George Radda, accompanied with almond croissants.
What influenced your decision to move from academic research into business development and pharmaceuticals after your PhD in cardiovascular medicine?
I have huge respect for researchers, but I had always thought about going into biotechnology. My parents were entrepreneurs, and they taught me to be creative, communicate well, and find challenges that would motivate me to work harder. Upon graduation, I was fortunate to work for a small Japanese biotech company in London, where the CEO, a former Genentech executive, mentored me in Business Development. In school, I had always wanted to be a pharmacist, so the idea of being in biotech and taking ideas from the laboratory bench into academia, through to preclinical and clinical development, and then delivering life-saving medicines to patients, fulfilled my childhood ambitions.
Having lived in Mainland China, Hong Kong and the UK, how has this shaped your outlook, both professionally and personally?
I like to think I’m pretty good at adapting quickly to evolving circumstances, blending into new cultures and picking up new habits fast, perhaps because of an empathetic streak in my character. Multi-cultural and continental experience has helped me to be agile and thrive in challenging situations such as COVID-19, where having clarity and hope, partnering with others and using strong communications are needed to build trust.
I’m a strong believer in maintaining a high work ethic and leading with integrity. It’s important to keep my teams motivated, even if it’s by over-communicating and ensuring everyone works collectively for a shared purpose.
You sit on the committee for the China-Oxford Scholarship Fund (COSF). What’s the importance of maintaining good research connections between Britain and China?
I got involved with COSF when I moved to Shanghai. COSF was a great way to stay in touch with Alumni and meet similar people who are passionate about delivering higher education to those most deserving and in need. Many of the recipients of the scholarship have since gone on to accomplish great things. Keeping close to this group keeps me informed of the latest trends and topics in scientific research. Building these personal social networks, both within and outside of my field has helped me to recognise top talent and the value of collaboration. At Johnson & Johnson, we believe that a great idea can come from anywhere – that no single company has a monopoly on innovation. Collaborations are the key to accelerating potential healthcare solutions for patients.
Could you tell us about JLABS, and the importance of building collaborations between pharma, medical device, consumer and health tech sectors?
I see entrepreneurs, academics, innovators creating potential breakthrough solutions every day. There’s an ability to take risks, to push barriers, to find transformational solutions.
But bringing new healthcare innovations to market isn’t easy. Start-ups often need financial resources, facilities, expertise in regulatory policy and commercialization, as well as the global networks needed to bring their science and technology to patients around the world. The threshold for innovation is continuing to rise, which has an impact on the growing cost of research and development. Start-ups and big pharma alike are adapting to the global economic climate and regulatory requirements to address unmet needs.
Johnson & Johnson Innovation was founded to provide a potential solution to address these challenges. The JLABS in Shanghai is providing more than just the combination of shared and private lab and offices spaces, equipment, value-added solutions, operational support, education and business services; it is providing access to an ecosystem that could help transform ideas from concept to reality.
In the past seven years, we’ve had over 640 start-ups come through JLABS across our 13 locations worldwide. These start-ups have raised over 27.8 bn USD, had 26 IPOS, 18 acquisitions and generated hundreds of deals. Support from the Shanghai Municipal Government, the Pudong New Area Government, and Shanghai Pharma Engine Company has been critical to our success.
JLABS operates what it calls a “no-strings-attached model”. Could you tell us what this means and how it benefits innovators?
JLABS @ Shanghai provides an internal community of likeminded individuals who share the entrepreneurial spirit. We open up companies to a rich local ecosystem of therapeutic area experts, venture capitalists, and deal teams who understand what innovators are trying to achieve.
Our “no-strings-attached model” means we allow resident companies to maintain complete entrepreneurial freedom that allows early-stage company residents to focus on scientific innovation yet retain their intellectual property.
Residents are provided with a capital-efficient and flexible platform that aims to enable them to accelerate the delivery of life-saving, life-enhancing health and wellness solutions to patients around the world.
We aim to help set them up for success by allowing them to focus on making the right connections and to get the resources they need, and the infrastructure that can help them succeed.
How do you see innovative start-ups, pharma and research working together to tackle COVID-19? Are there any new partnerships coordinated by JLABS you would be happy to talk about?
Johnson & Johnson is committed to partnering with multiple stakeholders with the aim to fight COVID-19 and are seeing the entire innovation ecosystem rallying to identify potential solutions. Our focus is on accelerating innovation through collaborations with entrepreneurs, academic researchers and institutions. We are searching and reviewing novel science and technologies across our global innovation network to help address the pandemic. Since the outbreak, we have screened over 100 collaboration opportunities related to potential vaccines, antiviral therapeutics and diagnostics/consumer aids.
45 JLABS resident companies are actively exploring novel technologies to help address the pandemic. And, through a landmark new partnership, Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and Johnson & Johnson have committed more than $1 billion of investment to co-fund vaccine research, development and clinical testing. The BARDA collaboration underscores the vital importance of public-private partnerships – in addition to collaborations among industry and academia – in tackling a pandemic outbreak like COVID-19.