Innovation Without Bounds

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-05-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 5

Launching a big pharma biotech incubator during the pandemic.

Imagine being tasked with opening a business in the past calendar year; a year that has been derailed by a global pandemic. For Sally Allain, head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS @ Washington, DC, it hasn’t been a fictional story. Tabbed to lead Johnson & Johnson Innovation’s newest JLABS location in the nation’s capital, opening its doors this spring, Allain has earned her latest opportunity through years of hard work in the pharmaceutical industry.

Local to the D.C. area, Allain is a graduate of Virginia Tech, where she earned her BS in Microbiology as well as her MS in Microbiology and Immunology. She also holds an MBA from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

Allain’s love for the entrepreneurial startup environment in biotech was found after graduate school as she transitioned her early career to the West Coast. She started with San Diego, CA-based biotech startup Egea Biosciences.

“I was fortunate enough to be one of the early employees and stayed with the company through an acquisition by Centocor, a company of the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies,” she explains. “And that really was my trajectory into big pharma, and Johnson & Johnson.”

Following another big move, this time overseas, Allain found herself working with UK-based governmental economic development agency, ITI Life Sciences. There, she continued working in the early stage science and technology space to identify market trends and support projects toward commercialization.

Allain then returned to San Diego, where she resumed her career with the J&J Family of Companies and managed external global collaborations within a discovery to early stage clinical portfolio. “[I was] really enjoying the interface between internal science and innovation within a big company, but recognizing the value of strategic partnerships in the external space,” she tells Pharm Exec. As Allain continued developing her skill sets in alliance, portfolio management, and strategy, she moved into global external innovation where she had an opportunity to work cross-sector. This role of evaluating strategic opportunities for Johnson & Johnson Innovation is what ultimately led to her current position as Head of JLABS @ Washington, DC.

“I feel like I’m living a dream job at the moment,” she says.

As head of the just-opened JLABS location, Allain has been responsible for the operational aspect of the site as well as business development. A lot of her time is spent on sourcing and evaluating science and technology, and working with key opinion leaders (KOLs) across the DC, Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) region to build a strong network.

Located at the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus, the DC JLABS site will also mark the beginning of a new partnership for Johnson & Johnson Innovation with Children’s National. Looking back on the past year of preparation, Allain says, “There’s nothing like opening a new business during a pandemic. It’s been a challenging year, as it has been for everyone as we’ve been responding to the pandemic.”

Outside of her current position with J&J, one of Allain’s personal passions is being an active role model in the community. She was part of the team responsible for developing the J&J Family of Companies’ WiSTEM2D (Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Manufacturing, and Design) Scholars Program. It is one initiative within a multi-pillared program aiming to support women in STEM2D fields at inflection points where they tend to step out of science, such as early in their professional careers as associate professors. Allain is also deeply passionate about her role as a tutor and mentor at a leadership school for girls in Baltimore.

“[It’s about] mentoring young women, opening doors, and making connections, as well as being a face to them, to believe they can step into these types of roles as women,” she says.

Allain has always emphasized the need to expand her network and bring different viewpoints to the forefront. She has seen this outlook reflected across the whole industry over the course of her career. “Recognizing the value of diversity around a table has changed dramatically from where it was 20 years ago when I was in grad school. It’s not that we’re just talking about it now, we’re actually doing it,” she says.

In addition to relying on a diverse network, Allain also likes to incorporate the “three Cs” in her approach to leadership: connectedness, compassion, and clarity.

“We have to come from a position of empathy; we need to listen to teams and individuals,” she says. “In our world, when we’re looking at solutions for our patients and consumers, we need to put ourselves in their shoes.”

Part of Allain’s emphasis on compassion comes from some of her own experiences during her professional journey. Due to her husband’s career, she has had to move around quite a bit.

“There were times I did have to pause on some things I wanted to do professionally,” she says. “And the times I think I struggled were when I looked at my peer group; maybe they were getting further ahead.”

While some may view this as an inconvenience, Allain looks back at the relocations as a positive for her professional growth. It made her realize that taking time to step away from your career and having to press that pause button is not something that you should hold against yourself. “There’s no race in this game of professional development or career trajectory,” she reminds.

Outside of work, Allain likes spending time with her husband and children, and traveling, which unfortunately has been put on pause the past year due to the pandemic. She recalls visiting China as one of the places she’s been that has given her the most cultural fulfillment. “I love that it is so different; thinking of the diversity of thought, diversity in ways in which people live, I think is really important,” says Allain. She hopes to bring her children to China someday to showcase that diversity.

As evidenced, Allain’s professional experiences play a big part in defining her own personal identity. “I’m in this profession because I want to help find solutions for people that are suffering and in pain,” she notes. “I want to wake up every day knowing I’m stepping into my work and that I can somehow be impactful to someone.”

To read the profiles of all 2021 EPL winners, click here.

Andy Studna is an Assistant Editor for Pharm Exec. He can be reached at astudna@mjhlifesciences.com.