Five Questions For … Tom Luby, Head of JLabs @ TMC in Houston

Houston—The business of healthcare is in Tom Luby’s blood.

It started during a childhood often spent in a family room in the back of his parents’ pharmacy listening to them interact with patients and their caregivers. Those experiences led him to a biology degree at the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh and a PhD in immunology at Tufts University in Boston.

“In college, I spent a lot of time in labs, both in biochemistry and chemistry, and I really found that it was a lot of fun,” he says.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Luby joined a series of biotech companies in Boston, including two—MGI Pharma and Zycos—that were acquired.

He spent four years with Johnson & Johnson as senior director of new ventures before he came to Houston in January to take over the leadership of JLabs at TMC, the pharmaceutical giant’s latest innovation skunkworks.

The Houston location of JLabs celebrated its first anniversary in March, and Luby says the center’s efforts are already making a mark. Among the successes in which JLabs played a role, he says, are exits like that of Adhesys Medical, a Rice University Business Plan Competition winner that was acquired by Germany-based Grunenthal Group in April.

JLabs houses selected companies and seeks to connect them with relevant mentors and partners within J&J and to J&J’s partners, alliances that could result in funding and, perhaps, an acquisition. And while not all JLabs companies will have that sort of outcome, Luby says the J&J network does have the “ability to get feedback to them and help them make strategic decisions on how they might take their company forward.”

In this week’s “Five Questions For … ,” Luby speaks further about life and his parents’ pharmacy, the hubris of the young, and how gender issues in the workplace hit close to home. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

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

Tom Luby: When I was 25, I wish that I had more humility and appreciation for the folks (and [their] effort) that had worked around me. When you’re younger, you’re trying to be recognized for your efforts. … I wish [I knew] then what I know now, [which] is, actually, if you’re more humble and work hard to make others successful around you, the group that you’re in is much more successful than if you’re acting as the hero-leader.

X: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

TL: Interestingly, I always knew that I was into medicine because I grew up in the back of a pharmacy. My parents met in pharmacy school, and they owned a small pharmacy together. They had to work crazy hours. We created a family room in the back of the pharmacy. I grew up in the conversations with doctors and pharmacists and thought about medicine.

When I got to high school, I wanted to be a high school biology teacher. Then when I was in college, the last thing I wanted to do was teach high school. So, I pivoted to spending more time in the lab, and being a researcher. I guess it was the realization that it would be kind of like the same thing over and over again every year. It became a little bit disheartening for me. When the opportunity came for me to do a semester-long internship in a lab, I jumped at it, and fell in love with the whole idea of science at the bench.

X: What’s your blind spot?

TL: I guess you can call it a blind spot. These are vices that you have that you don’t recognize as such. Growing up in the Northeast of the U.S. and now moving to Houston and recognizing through the course of my career—in the industries in which we all work—that [the workplace] continues to become more diverse—and [I] benefit from that perspective and ideas. As a kid growing up in the U.S., I speak English, but then when I sit with my colleagues or neighbors that have a diversity of experiences and they mention offhand that they speak three languages and worked in four different cultures, I recognize that my U.S.-centric point-of-view could be a bit of a bias that would not allow me to see all opportunities in the way that they might best be seen.

I also grew up in a house where, essentially, my parents had parallel careers. Most independent pharmacies went away when insurance carriers changed the way they charged in the late ’70s/early ’80s. They went to work for a large not-to-be-named pharmacy chain, and even though she had equivalent experience and, arguably, mom had better interpersonal skills, dad was always promoted first and also made more money. It pissed my mom off, and she always mentioned it in the house. So, I have an appreciation for gender bias, having seen it firsthand.

That is something to worry about, and I try to watch out for.

X: How do you relax outside of work when you want to tune out the noise?

TL: Two ways. [The first is] spending time with my family. Everybody just made it here to Texas. I had been commuting to Boston, but [as of] June, my wife and four kids are all under the same roof with me. Second is playing all the rounds of golf as often as I can. [It’s] even better when I can do both—we all play together. All my children play golf. Some are more enthusiastic about going out and playing with dad than others.

X: If you could change just one regulation that affects your industry, what would it be?

TL: One thing I would say from a regulation perspective—I’ll stay away from the FDA and talk a little about corporate tax. It’s unusually high and, in many cases, what that does is eat money that could be reinvested in R&D. We need to find ways to allow for that money to come back to the U.S. Here, in the U.S., is arguably where many of the innovative ideas in healthcare come from. This has a large impact [on] our ability to be innovative, and especially for larger companies to partner with smaller companies, such as in the startup ecosystem.

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