Five Questions For: Melinda Richter, Global Head at JLabs

Xconomy National — 

Healthcare innovation is very personal for Melinda Richter.

She was an ambitious 26-year-old, posted by a global telecom company to Beijing as part of its fast-track leadership program. “I had the express intent of being president one day,” she says. “I thought I had the world by the tail.”

But during a walk in the woods, Richter was bitten by a bug, a seemingly inconsequential event that would later threaten her life. “The doctor came into my room and said, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing more’ he could do for me,” she recalls. “That kicked off a two-month journey. Every night I’d go to sleep not knowing whether I’d wake up the next day.”

“Something about that changes a person,” Richter adds.

The experience—she did recover from the bite’s complications—inspired her to focus on the healthcare market. “You can’t take a blood test and figure out what I have?” she remembers asking her doctors.

In 2004, she founded Prescience, a firm that specializes in helping to commercialize healthcare-related discoveries and works with research institutes, incubators, and other related groups. Nine years later, Richter became the global head of San Francisco-based JLabs, an organization housed within Johnson & Johnson’s innovation division that’s likewise focused on helping young healthcare companies reach the market. “I had to be about advancing innovation in healthcare,” she says, “to try and make it sexy and be where the best talent and investors want to get into.”

In our latest “Five Questions for … ,” Richter speaks about how curiosity and perseverance are a lodestar for her life, and why it’s important to do the right thing.

Xconomy: What do you wish your 25-year-old self knew (or was told?)

Melinda Richter: You are good enough. You’re strong enough. You’re capable enough. I think as a woman, and given the background that I came from, I was always somewhat conscious of the fact that I didn’t have the same platform that other people had. I actually didn’t realize how poor we were until I went to college, and realized just how different my life was compared to other people. I didn’t talk about it for years because I thought it made me different … and that I would be judged for it. Now I know differently. It’s not that it’s better or worse, it just is, and I would have counseled myself at 25 that there is no judgment on you for any of that and that you can do it. You’re powerful enough to do what you set your mind to. I would’ve been kinder to myself in that regard.

X: What’s your blind spot?

MR: My blind spot is probably taking the time to make sure that everybody is on board. I am optimistic and creative. I love coming up with solutions. I love mapping out a plan and getting all of the people on board that could be part of that plan, marching forward. And sometimes you need to just take a pause to think about all the extended community and make sure everybody is on board. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at that but it’s always a good reminder to constantly check in on that. I have a different risk profile than the average person so I have to recognize that.

X: Tell me about your early influences.

MR: I would say my early influences were my parents. We didn’t have much in the way of money or material goods, and I think they both had a grade 5 or 6-level education. They couldn’t tell me about the world I was walking into, but they did instill values in me that I think have been my passport through life. My dad was incredibly curious and adventurous. His super power was his passion to stand up for things that mattered. He and his parents were in Czechoslovakia at the beginning of World War II and they had to escape from Europe when Hitler was coming into their town. He always said to us, ‘I don’t blame Hitler for what happened. I blame everyone who stood around and watched, who didn’t stand up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. Your job in life is to be educated as to what’s going on in the world, stand up, and make a difference.’ That was a bedrock of our early childhood.

The news was always on. We were reading anything that we could at the library and debating it at the dinner table.

Mom was different—very logical, analytical, and detailed-oriented. Her super power was creative problem solving. She never became a victim of what we didn’t have. She would take a look at whatever was there and say, ‘How can I turn this into something beautiful? What can I do with this?’ So that’s how I approach things. I don’t get mired in woe-is-me. I don’t have everything that I need, so it’s more like, ‘What do I have, and what can I do with it?’ Those life values really have stood the test of time for me.

X: What’s your most impressive or most quirky skill that has nothing to do with your day job?

MR: Curiosity to ask the question why, to ask the second question when you get an answer. That has led me to explore beyond every place or role or relationship that I’ve ever had. I’ve lived in a number of countries. One of the reasons I did that is I realized we all grow up with a sense of right and wrong and that’s instilled in us through our parents and our community. So what is really our own set of rights and wrongs? Living in all these other countries that are so different and going in that with a sense of suspending judgment and just being curious and understanding and finding out for yourself what you like and what you don’t like and integrating that into who you are. That set the stage for me to evolve as a person.