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Johnson & Johnson opens Boston Innovation Center, run by former executive director of MIT cancer institute

Posted by Scott Kirsner  February 22, 2013 10:17 AM

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J&J is coming to Kendall.

One of the last big pharmaceutical companies without an outpost in the life sciences capital of the world is remedying that oversight, opening an office at One Cambridge Center this spring. Johnson & Johnson's Boston Innovation Center will be run by Robert Urban, right, a onetime biotech entrepreneur who was most recently executive director of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. (That's the top administrative position, reporting to director Tyler Jacks.) Urban started at J&J in early November, and he is already managing a group of more than 20 employees — both new hires, and J&J veterans who are relocating to the area — working in temporary office space in the Back Bay.

New Jersey-based J&J, maker of Band-Aids and baby shampoo, is the second-biggest pharma company in the U.S. by revenue, just behind Pfizer. (And Pfizer is building a big new R&D facility in Kendall, slated to be finished later this year.) The Cambridge office will help forge and manage research collaborations with universities and companies working on new medical devices, drugs, diagnostics, and consumer health products, and also make investments in start-ups. Even before the establishment of the Boston Innovation Center, J&J has worked with MIT and local companies like Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, and Alkermes.

"What we really hope to do is try to simplify for the outside world how you might try to interact with J&J," Urban told me this morning. "We have 250 businesses spread across the world. With these innovation centers in Boston, Menlo Park, London, and Shanghai, we're creating four red doors" — red, of course, being J&J's corporate hue — "that innovators can walk through to help them figure out who to work with here." The Boston Innovation Center will be staffed with technical experts in areas like neuroscience, oncology, and vaccines who can evaluate prospective partnerships; a team to craft contracts and then manage those partnerships; and also investors from J&J's corporate venture capital arm.

Urban says that the focus of the Boston Innovation Center will be on products that are "pre proof-of-concept, or basically pre-phase 2 randomized clinical trial." Anything at a later stage would typically be handled by corporate development or mergers-and-acquisitions teams within J&J's business units. And with several big J&J drugs having lost their patent protection in 2011 and 2012, it isn't surprising that Urban adds, "We're focused on collaborations that can head to commercialization as soon as possible."

Urban says that setting up a J&J research-and-development lab in Cambridge isn't part of the current plan. "It may turn out that as we do some of these projects [with partners], it might make sense for some of our researchers to work side-by-side with the companies, and we're not averse to that," he says. But the company's strategy doesn't involve establishing a "substantial physical research footprint here."

Urban says that about 65 percent of the Boston Innovation Center team are J&J employees who have transferred from elsewhere in the company, like finance director Salvatore Giovine. Others have been brought in from other companies, like vice president of oncology scientific innovation Pamela Carroll, who came from Roche Pharmaceuticals. J&J is still hiring for the new facility.

Johnson & Johnson announced the creation of its four innovation centers last September. Its Boston Innovation Center opening in Cambridge this spring is not to be confused with the Boston Innovation Center that is opening in Boston this spring, operated by the Cambridge Innovation Center. But who could possibly be confused? (The Boston Innovation Center in Boston will be a gathering place for people who work in the Innovation District; I wrote about it back in November.)

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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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