Melinda Richter 

head of JLABS

Johnson & Johnson 

Like many people, Melinda Richter never thought much about health until her own was in peril. A rising star in the technology world at Nortel, Richter was in China working on a project that, in the grand scheme of things, ranked a few notches below curing a disease: She and her team were trying to piece together how to pay for drinks from a vending machine using a smartphone. After a toxic insect bit her, Richter found herself in a hospital room with an illness that her doctors couldn’t diagnose or treat. They were not optimistic about her chances of leaving that room alive. She was 26.

“There was a certain irony to that experience,” Richter recalls. “There I was, trying to figure out buying sodas with cellphones, and the doctors really had no idea at all what was wrong with me. I had the sense that I was spending an awful lot of time and money on something that was frivolous.”

Prior to this incident, Richter hadn’t paid much attention to healthcare, her own or the system in general. “I barely ever went to the doctor,” she confesses. “I got lucky, because sometimes when you’re sick, it’s too late to have that transformation in your priorities. At that moment, it became very important for me to get religion [about health].”

Richter wasted little time. She founded Prescience International, a kind of forerunner to JLABS, which she now heads up, to spur innovation within healthcare. The new company drew on her experiences in the tech business, especially its full-fledged sponsorship of all things entrepreneurial.

“There were ways you could make it cheaper, faster, and easier for innovation to happen in life sciences,” she says. “The way it was happening wasn’t working for anyone.”

Richter’s idea was, in essence, to provide operational and administrative assistance to the entrepreneurs and startups that needed it most — to set them up with the infrastructure and resources usually only found in large organizations. Johnson & Johnson, one of the few major-league pharma companies that embraced the health-tech community early in its evolution, would prove the perfect parent for any such incubator. JLABS formally debuted in January 2012, with Richter as its leader.

Then as now, JLABS presented a win–win situation for its startup partners. JLABS benefited from the intelligence and enthusiasm their founders brought under the J&J umbrella, while the founders enjoyed access to J&J’s world-class facilities, organizational expertise, and resources — and the ability to access them without handing over an ownership interest.

“I think of our innovation strategy as a talent strategy,” Richter explains. “Entrepreneurs love the grounding, in terms of what will work from an industry perspective, they get from people in a big company, and the big company gets that injection of excitement and creativity. The biggest thing is that they need each other.”

Which isn’t to say that the JLABS ascent into one of the pharma world’s biggest, most attentive health-tech facilitators — and Richter’s simultaneous rise into one of its most respected leaders — was a linear process. Some of the challenges might have been anticipated. “Everybody painted every decision with the same brush of risk to patient safety,” she says. “The industry needed to disintermediate the different pieces and decide which ones were truly related to patient safety. That took a while.”

Less expected was the scrutiny Richter herself faced, owing to one supposedly important missing line on her resume: She lacked a Ph.D. “The first time I pitched this model to two very important people in the industry, one of them said, ‘That’s crazy. I don’t see any value in that.’ The second one said, ‘Listen, little girl, everybody in this industry has a Ph.D. Even the janitors have Ph.D.s,’” Richter recalls. “That could have been very demotivating or it could have inspired me to try even harder. I grew up with five very competitive brothers, so you can probably guess what happened.”

When asked if she has since taken an I-told-you-so victory lap around the workplaces of those individuals, Richter laughs. She acknowledges that both apologized, but says that with the benefit of hindsight she understands where they were coming from. “When you’re pushing something different, as I was, you have to power through all the obstacles,” she continues. “You have to understand that people are going to think you’re crazy. It’s incumbent on you to help translate what you’re doing and show that it can work.”

Up next for Richter and JLABS: Many more in its series of QuickFire Challenges, through which J&J offers grants and space at a JLABS incubator to the people or teams that present the smartest ideas to solve a pressing healthcare-related challenge. Plus, look for JLABS to turn its focus beyond North America and to actively pursue salves around access and pricing.

Richter also expects that she, her team, and JLABS’ entrepreneurs-in-residence will have a lot of fun along the way. “The old days of bringing your corporate self to work and leaving your personal self at home are gone,” she says. “The only way to have a transformational impact is by being ourselves. That’s how we connect better to the people we’re trying to help.”