Next stop: Houston

How JLABS' new site at TMC plays into Houston's hub hopes

Last month's opening by Johnson & Johnson of the Houston-based JLABS incubator is being seen as a coup by local leaders hoping to make the city the "third coast" of biotech. But stakeholders inside and outside the region see this as an important but small step in what could be a 10-year road to bringing Houston to roughly where New York is now.

The new incubator, dubbed JLABS@TMC, was launched by Johnson & Johnson Innovation, the pharma's early stage collaboration unit, and is the organization's fifth JLABS site in the U.S., following openings in San Francisco, South San Francisco, San Diego and Boston. The pharma plans to launch its first ex-U.S. incubator in Toronto in mid-May.

Robert Robbins, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center (TMC), told BioCentury J&J's decision to root a JLABS in Houston is a major boon to growing efforts to build the locale as a viable biotech hub.

"We needed to get external validation and we needed the global life science companies to have a presence in Houston," said Robbins.

Robbins himself is part of that effort. He was recruited from Stanford University to run TMC in 2012, having served as director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute.

The TMC is a campus that stretches over 50 million square feet, and houses over 50 biomedical institutions including most notably the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

"We're creating a Houston-like Mission Bay here, if you will. Except it's not just UCSF. It's University of Texas [Houston campus], Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas A&M Health Science Center in Houston, coming together to build large research facilities," said Robbins.

According to Robbins, the challenge for now is to create new channels between the independent institutions.

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