JLabs’s Tom Luby Talks About Houston’s Potential as a Biotech Hub

Houston—Much is made over the difference between the Houston biotech ecosystem and those on the East and West coasts.

Places like Cambridge, MA’s Kendall Square are so dense with scientists, entrepreneurs, and investors eager to play matchmaker, lab space is becoming near impossible to secure, says Tom Luby of JLabs, an innovation incubator run by the pharmaceuticals giant Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) that operates at a handful of sites in North America.

But it wasn’t always that way, he says. “If you walked around Kendall Square 10 years ago, there was some venture, a lot of biotech, MIT, but not a lot of big biotech or pharma presence,” Luby says. “That has completely changed; it’s become a crowded space.”

That sort of transformation is part of what made him decide to leave his position as JNJ’s senior director for new ventures in the Boston area in February, and take the helm at JLabs’s Houston hub. “Here all the basics are in play; it’s a great spot for a company like JNJ to be,” he says. “I’m jazzed about how committed [the Texas Medical Center] and the city of Houston is to really commercializing and translating the work that is done here.”

Luby praised outgoing TMC CEO Bobby Robbins, in particular, for implementing a vision that he says can set up Houston as a biotech ecosystem capable of becoming a peer to more established ones on the coasts. He says he believes that will continue, even following Robbins’s decision to depart Texas and become president of the University of Arizona.

“Our assumption is that will continue and [the TMC board] will look for somebody to lead TMC who is aligned with that vision,” Luby says.

In March 2016, JNJ opened what it calls “JLabs @ TMC” at the TMC’s Innovation Institute, which also includes TMCx, the medical center’s life sciences accelerator, and the AT&T Foundry for Connected Health. The idea is to create a think tank-style environment to encourage collaboration among JLabs and TMCx companies, as well as with investors, mentors, and healthcare executives in Houston.

There are currently 31 companies in JLabs’ space with room for about 20 more.

“Some companies will have technology challenges that won’t allow them to move forward,” Luby says. But he adds that he believes JLabs resources both within the pharmaceutical giant and through its partners can give young life sciences companies crucial connections.

Luby says his experience on both sides of the fence—as part of young biotech companies and also working for large firms like JNJ—is key. “I think I can see both sides and help bridge that for effective dealmaking,” he says.

A year from now, Luby says he would like to be able to report that a JLabs company has had some measurable success, in the clinic or in fundraising—“some tangible thing that, ’Hey, these companies are now going to make it, and bring a product to market’; that would be great.”

“The more of those we could do, the better,” he says.

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