Four Skolkovo biomed startups have obtained sponsorship from Johnson & Johnson, and met with the U.S. multinational’s executive vice president and chief scientific officer Paul Stoffels during his recent visit to the innovation centre.
Skolkovo senior vice president for innovations Kirill Kaem (left) shows Paul Stoffels around the Sk BioLab. Photo: Sk.ru.
Dr. Stoffels visited the Sk BioLab, Russia’s first shared lab space for biotech startups, and met with representatives of several companies, including four whose places in the lab and research materials will be sponsored by Johnson & Johnson: Pharmdiall, which is developing a new-generation anticoagulant; National Pharmaceutical Technologies, which is developing a treatment for non-small cell lung cancer; Target Medicals, which is developing aldosterone synthase inhibitors and a novel anti-tuberculosis drug; and Cryno, whose discovery could be used not only to treat type 2 diabetes, but also to prevent it.
“I started myself with five people in an incubator at the University of Antwerp with an idea, and from that built a company with two or three hundred people and generated three new drugs, so I know exactly what you go through to set up your own company,” Stoffels, a Belgian doctor who began his career focusing on HIV and tropical diseases in Africa, told the Russian entrepreneurs.
Following an agreement signed back in December, Johnson & Johnson and the Skolkovo Foundation selected four companies and gave them the option of choosing two places in the lab for a period of six months, or one place for a period of 12 months. All four startups chose the former option. Johnson & Johnson will also pay for research materials used in that time, said Ruslan Altaev, development and key partners director within the Skolkovo Foundation’s biomed cluster.
“Johnson & Johnson told us which broad treatment areas they were interested in, and based on that, we provided them with information about our startups, accepted applications, and from the ones that met the preliminary criteria, produced a shortlist of about seven startups,” said Altaev. Skolkovo then selected four companies that were approved by Johnson & Johnson.
Stoffels met with several Skolkovo biomed startups that are working from the Sk BioLab. Photo: Sk.ru.
“The agreement is that Johnson & Johnson supports the R&D by paying for the companies’ access to the lab. But we would rather ask for more support – not moneywise, but in terms of expertise,” Kirill Kaem, senior vice president for innovations at the Skolkovo Foundation, told Stoffels upon introducing him to the lab and the startups.
Kaem requested one hour of mentoring once a quarter from experts at Johnson & Johnson headquarters via videoconferencing, a proposal for which Stoffels expressed support, citing similar practice in the corporation’s own state-of-the-art incubator labs, known as JLABS. There are 11 JLABS across the world, from San Francisco and New York to Toronto and Shanghai.
“What we have done is to have a video connection from every laboratory inside every JLABS location in the world, so people are used to giving advice, depending on whether it’s biology, toxicology, cardiovascular safety, or pharmaceutical formulation, and we have quite a collaborative network internally of people who are ready and trained and open to do that,” said Stoffels, who is responsible for Johnson & Johnson’s innovation agenda.
Stoffels’ last visit to the Skolkovo innovation city was back in 2012, when he met with Victor Vekselberg, president of the Skolkovo Foundation, to discuss collaboration. Back then, there was one complete building at Skolkovo: the Hypercube. Now the innovations city is home to the biggest technopark in Eastern Europe, an international gymnasium, the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, a Boeing training and research centre, and many R&D centres. Stoffels described the transformation as “very impressive,” and praised the “dynamic” Skolkovo ecosystem.
“What is impressive is the combination of biology, technology, and also the data sciences,” he told Sk.ru following his meeting with the startups.
Stoffels listened to what the Russian startups are working on and shared his experience with them. Photo: Sk.ru.
“I think that the future of science and of innovation is going to be the combination of all the different elements in tech, whether it’s biology, mechanics, 3D printing, or data: we’ve seen that here today with the microbiome [project]; you see it everywhere,” he said, referring to Knomics, another Skolkovo resident startup working out of the Sk BioLab who had presented their research, which uses bioinformatics to analyse the human microbiome and its effect on people’s health.
“It’s impressive to bring these people together,” added Stoffels.
One area in which Skolkovo and Johnson & Johnson could cooperate is in applying science to medical practice, he said.
“I think what’s going to be important is the combination of basic science with medical science connected to clinics, because basic science needs to be translated into solutions for patients, and that’s important,” said the doctor.
“I think Skolkovo could and will play an important role on the connection of the medical side of Russia with basic science and how new applications can be developed,” he said.
Johnson & Johnson is keen to share its vast experience and exchange ideas with small companies. Photo: Sk.ru
“The challenge of medicine today is that the problems we are solving are getting more complex, and that’s why better science and a combination of technology are going to be needed. Simple diseases have been solved. If they were simple, they would have been solved a long time ago. So we are now working on oncology, antimicrobial resistance, diabetes, dementia: all very challenging diseases, and we are very interested to collaborate with Skolkovo,” said Stoffels, who leads Johnson & Johnson’s global public health strategy to make innovative medicines and technologies accessible in areas where resources are scarce.
Skolkovo, which has more than 90 industrial partners from all over the world, also has a crucial role to play in bringing together global tech companies and facilitating collaboration with Skolkovo startups, said Stoffels. Many of those industrial partners, such as Philips, IBM and Cisco, have R&D centres inside the innovation city.
“Having done several hundred collaborations with companies across the world, we know that sharing know-how and exchanging ideas is extremely important,” Stoffels told Sk.ru.
“We learn a lot from small companies and vice versa: we have a lot of experience and experienced people in certain areas. I always say, we have already made a lot of mistakes in the past so we will share what we learned … so that nobody else does the same thing again: that saves capital, time and energy.”
Under the sponsorship agreement with the four Skolkovo biomed startups, neither side is under any obligation, but Altaev hopes that once the startups’ projects are successfully completed, Johnson & Johnson will continue to work with them in the form of joint research or research commissioned from the startups by the U.S. giant, or via Skolkovo startups taking part in the company’s corporate accelerators, both in Russia and abroad.