Head of JLABS @ Shanghai Sharon Chan on opportunities in China’s healthcare sector and the drive to help entrepreneurs

Sharon Chan heads up an incubator that is growing innovative companies at the center of China’s white-hot biotech sector.

Sharon Chan

Sharon Chan is the Head of JLABS @ Shanghai, the first Johnson & Johnson health startup incubator in the Asia Pacific. She is a respected global health leader with extensive experience in business and product development across pharmaceuticals, medical devices, vaccines, and technology platforms. In 2020, Sharon was recognized by Forbes China as one of the 50 Top Women in Tech.

Prior to joining Johnson & Johnson, Sharon was Head of Asia at Aeras, where she established its Beijing office for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and focused on tuberculosis (TB) vaccines. She had previously served as a member of the Senior Leadership team for Baxter in Shanghai with responsibility for providing strategic direction and making deals to add to Baxter’s top-line growth.

Chan will speak at SupChina’s Women’s Conference 2021, which is slated to take place virtually on May 12 and 13. Get your tickets here before they sell out!

Prior to the event, we sat down with Chan to talk about her experience as head of JLabs @ Shanghai, the health startup scene in China, the work Johnson & Johnson has been doing during the pandemic, and her advice to young women navigating careers in male-dominated institutions.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

SupChina: What does your work at JLABS @ Shanghai entail? Could you walk us through an average day?

Sharon Chan: Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS are no-strings-attached incubators that are part of a global network of open innovation ecosystems, aiming to enable and empower innovators to create and accelerate the delivery of lifesaving, life-enhancing health and wellness potential solutions.

As head of JLABS @ Shanghai, I am responsible for helping our 55 resident companies with the resources that can help take their early-stage ideas through development to commercialization. A typical day for me starts early, making connections with the U.S. at the end of its day, and it ends reconnecting with the U.S. as it opens for business and kicks into gear late into my evening. In between, my focus is on helping our entrepreneurs, by connecting them with the expertise and resources they need to help them succeed across multiple time zones and areas of science from skin care to lung cancer to mental health, receiving updates from CEOs on milestones, no matter how small or big they are.

By joining JLABS @ Shanghai, small companies can gain access to many of the benefits of a big corporation. They also gain access to Johnson & Johnson’s broader network, which includes R&D and our venture capital arm, JJDC. So a big part of my day involves working with our counterparts at various institutions to ensure that our CEOs have opportunities to get the resources and the capital they need. I also meet with government partners to highlight the importance of open innovation and collaboration. And when I’m not working with our JLABS team to improve the facilities of the site, working out footprint upgrades and Environment, Health, and Safety, or working on strategic projects to imbed the Johnson & Johnson Credo values and deepen our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, I’m out in the ecosystem engaging in panels and forums to get the word out about the importance of open innovation and collaboration.

As every minute of every day is critical to the success of our startups, my days are long and jam packed but exceptionally meaningful, as I know I am contributing to entrepreneurs in need and enabling potential breakthroughs in human health. What more can one ask for?

SupChina: JLABS @ Shanghai is billed as the “first JLABS location” in Asia. Why was it significant that Johnson & Johnson Innovation has a presence in Asia or specifically China?

Sharon Chan: Johnson & Johnson Innovation recognizes the Asia Pacific as a major biotech powerhouse. That’s why we established one of our four global Innovation Centers in Shanghai there. Our choice of Shanghai as the first JLABS location (and the largest in our global network) is a recognition of the city’s position as a leading center of innovation and entrepreneurship and of the strong support from the Shanghai Municipal and Pudong New Area Governments.

Shanghai has all the ingredients for a thriving healthcare hot spot. It has the highest concentration of medical R&D resources in China, including science parks, universities, medical schools, and other institutions such as accelerators and incubators. It is also home to significant R&D talent.

These factors, combined with subsidies to incentivize corporate research, development, and production in healthcare, make Shanghai an important science hub and an ideal location for JLABS.

SupChina: You’ve mentioned before that Johnson & Johnson has a “rinse and repeat” formula for their incubators, but the places JLABS goes to are very different, with different rules, regulations, languages, and cultures. What are some of the unique hurdles of building a JLABS in Shanghai?

Sharon Chan: Across all JLABS locations, we have a consistent approach of providing resident innovators with a capital efficient and flexible platform with all equipment built to the exact same standards in all of our facilities, whether our world-class labs or just our coffee machines. That said, our JLABS @ Shanghai site was always going to be a unique challenge.

One of the early hurdles was just the construction. Representing innovation in the design — with the largest automated, curved glass door in China! — we had to be meticulous with every detail to ensure the finished product was perfect. I have many fond memories of the construction challenges!

Another challenge involved becoming known in China — the word “JLABS” was unfamiliar to people and would often come with questions on what it stands for, or people mispronouncing it as “JLAB” in its singular entity. It was also new to our colleagues within the region, and there was a strategy behind making sure that colleagues understood our model.

A big part of our success to date has been educating stakeholders on our business model and driving the notion that success is not about occupancy and how many residents we have placed, but about the science moving forward within our very walls.

And, of course, another key to our success has been having an amazing team to reflect our world-class mission every day.

SupChina: How would you compare the healthcare startup environment in Shanghai with other notable tech hubs like New York City or Silicon Valley?

Sharon Chan: First, what I would say differentiates China from other notable hubs is the scale of opportunity and the level of growth, driven by healthcare spending and burden of disease. Healthcare spending in Asia is expected to grow at an annual rate of 7%, reaching $2.4 trillion by 2022, faster than in the United States and Europe.

Alongside this, rapid socioeconomic change and a booming economy are driving a growing demand for quality healthcare, and this is where the startup environment can really shine to leverage the scale of opportunity in the country.

Startups in China have the huge advantage of being embedded in a thriving life science ecosystem that is increasingly recognized as a global powerhouse, benefiting from strong infrastructure, government support, and favorable policies; alongside a talent pool comprising a high number of STEM graduates each year, a wealth of returnees from other thriving ecosystem, such as the U.S. and Europe, and strong venture capital investment — the second-highest spend behind the U.S. in 2018.

Shanghai alone has a strong reputation as an innovation-driven city and a major global entrepreneurial hub, with the highest concentration of R&D resources in China and a rapidly growing startup community.

This all makes the healthcare startup environment in Shanghai, and China more broadly, unique and full of opportunity.

SupChina: You’ve mentioned that your first job out of university was with a startup. Are there any lessons you learned from that early experience that you’ve carried into your current position as a supporter of other startups?

Sharon Chan: When I look back at my earlier career in a startup, one of my key learnings was about the need to remain agile in everything we did. Change was very normal, and it was all about taking risks, remaining optimistic, and embracing agility.

This was not unique just to the company I worked for. These are skills that I would argue are critical to all startup success. To find transformation solutions, there’s an ability — even an eagerness — to take risks and push barriers. And startups do this with little security. They are the true heroes.

Knowing that all startups and entrepreneurs face many of the same obstacles, such as the need for infrastructure, capital, and expertise, was really why Johnson & Johnson Innovation was founded and why JLABS was created — to help remove the obstacles that entrepreneurs face to allow them to focus on the science. And it’s certainly why I’m in this job today with the passion and drive to help startups achieve their dreams.

I learned that providing infrastructure, access to capital, and mentorship is key; strong mentorship has certainly shaped who I am today. And fortunately, I have the awesome responsibility of building and creating this for entrepreneurs in Shanghai.

SupChina: What’s coming out of JLABS that readers should be excited about? Could you provide some examples of the work your resident companies are doing?

Sharon Chan: Across the global Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS network, startup companies are working on lots of exciting solutions, including robotic needles to help detect lung cancer, new molecules to help beat Alzheimer’s, mobile phone apps to monitor skin health, and many more!

To give you a couple of examples from our JLABS @ Shanghai portfolio:

Hawkeye Bio, a Californian startup, developed a breath test technology, with the aim to allow for a quicker, more convenient, and noninvasive patient experience for the detection of lung cancer. It has also recently pivoted to look at blood sampling as an alternative means of early detection.

Cosmo Aesthetics, an Australian based startup, focused on developing disruptive technologies with the aim to provide ease-of-use products and services for the “Health & Beauty at Home” market, has recently been developing a patented EYE-wearing goggles with an anti-aging multi-feature technology, “EYEmage,” designed for eyelid skin rejuvenation and minimizing dark circles around the eyes.

To find out more about what our resident companies are working on and toward, we do encourage people to visit the JLABS Navigator on our website, http://jlabs.jnjinnovation.com/, which has all of our companies and their information at your fingertips!

SupChina: Throughout the pandemic, the whole world has been focused on vaccines as the panacea of pandemic prevention, but I assume Johnson & Johnson is working on a number of different projects to address the pandemic. Could you lay out some of these other things?

Sharon Chan: Through our Innovation Centers and Business Development teams across Johnson & Johnson’s global innovation network, we have been searching and reviewing novel science and technologies to help address the pandemic. By early 2021, we screened over 230 ideas related to potential vaccines, antiviral therapeutics, and diagnostics/consumer aids. Johnson & Johnson subsequently entered into collaborations with two diagnostics companies focused on viral detection, as well as a leading academic center on vaccine design, and tested multiple candidates for activity against SARS-COV-2.

More than 60 resident companies in our global incubator network Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS are currently exploring novel technologies to help address the COVID-19 pandemic. JLABS supports our innovator community with a Financial Relief Program for resident companies experiencing economic and/or financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so they could refocus efforts to address the current crisis or continue to drive other critical health solutions for people around the world.

In 2020, we announced the first companies to participate in BLUE KNIGHT™, our joint initiative with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This collaboration aims to stimulate innovation and incubation of science and technologies that improve health security and response through companies focused on public health threats and emerging infectious diseases. Blue Knight companies continue to be selected on a rolling basis and include those working to fill gaps in the current set of available COVID-19 potential solutions, as well as on potential solutions for future health threats. Blue Knight companies are hosted and mentored at Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS locations in Washington, D.C., New York City, San Diego, and Toronto, as well as virtually. Through our strategic corporate venture arm, Johnson & Johnson – JJDC, we are investing in external companies running research programs focused on COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics.

We’re also looking ahead where there is arguably a future public health threat. Last year, Johnson & Johnson joined with more than 20 other pharmaceutical companies to collectively invest nearly US$1 billion to bring 2–4 new antibiotics to patients by the end of the next decade, as part of the Antimicrobial Resistance Action Fund.

SupChina: You’ve worked in and with an extensive array of institutions but most are likely to have been dominated by men. Looking back, what were some of your biggest challenges in navigating to where you are now? Is there anything you wish you had told your younger self or lessons you would impart to the next generation of aspiring female leaders?

Sharon Chan: One of the biggest obstacles I faced earlier in my career was a lack of confidence — the confidence to speak up in a room filled with men, to challenge something that was unbalanced or didn’t quite seem right. And not only that, but to actually be heard.

During my time at university in the U.K., gender imbalance was everywhere, and for every one female chemist, there were three males. In one of my first jobs in London, women made up only around 20% of the workforce. As a female working in what is still globally very much a male-dominated field, it’s not hard to see the gender inequalities that unfortunately are still a common part of many people’s realities.

However, throughout my career, I have been fortunate to work within organizations that have supported and celebrated the social, economic, and cultural achievements of women, while also working to accelerate gender equality. At Johnson & Johnson Innovation in Asia Pacific, we’re particularly proud to be led almost entirely by women.

My passion today is to help startups achieve their dreams. It’s a passion that comes from seeing in the eyes of our startups the same pride I saw in my entrepreneur father when opening his first business and helping it grow. Finding my purpose has changed who I am and certainly got me through many obstacles. My advice now is to always be your authentic self.

Authenticity isn’t about being totally transparent so people can see your flaws, it’s about being open, sharing personal stories, and positioning yourself and your points of view so that your customers, your team, your communities, and your shareholders understand how we can all bring our best and whole self to work every day.

One of my favorite quotes is “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’” So, go out, find your passion, serve others and your community! We can’t just sit around. Hope is not passive. It’s active, and it calls for energy, courage, and collaboration. Working together, we can change the trajectory of health for humanity.