As one of the world's largest health care companies, Johnson & Johnson sells everything from prescription drugs to medical devices to health and beauty products. But it has been late to the party in the Boston area, where rivals have flocked for years to rub shoulders with the scientists and entrepreneurs who populate this increasingly prominent life sciences hub.
That absence will be remedied Thursday when the company formally opens its Johnson & Johnson Boston Innovation Center in Cambridge's Kendall Square. The new center will step up the company's collaboration with academic researchers and biomedical start-ups here and elsewhere along the Eastern Seaboard.
"We want to come into Boston and work with the local community," said Paul Stoffels, the Belgian-born chief scientific officer and worldwide chairman of J&J's pharmaceutical business.
"We know what works and doesn't work. What we know we are prepared to make available to partners in collaboration," said Stoffels, who plans to attend a Thursday night reception marking the opening of the innovation center at One Cambridge Center.
J&J, based in New Brunswick, N.J., also is set to unveil several new initiatives and partnerships Thursday, underscoring its commitment to grab a foothold in the Boston area. Its life sciences innovation unit, Janssen Labs, will help underwrite the nonprofit Lab Central, a new Kendall Square incubator for biotech and medical technology start-ups. Lab Central was initially funded with a $5 million capital grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.
In addition, J&J will disclose investments in a pair of early-stage biotechnology companies in the Boston area: Rodin Therapeutics, which is seeking to develop treatments for neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, and Vedanta Biosciences, which is working on an experimental drug for inflammatory bowel disease.
Company officials won't disclose the size of their venture capital fund, but it has made more than 80 investments — most between $5 million and $10 million — in life sciences start-ups worldwide. Now J&J will try to extend that deal-making capability to the Boston area.
"We hope to deliver the message that we're here for entrepreneurs in all of the sectors that we're supporting," said Robert Urban, who left the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT to head J&J's new Boston Innovation Center. "What we represent is a front door to the 125,000 people who are Johnson & Johnson."
Other biopharmaceutical players already have set up shop in the Boston area. American giants Pfizer Inc. and Merck & Co., Europe's Novartis AG and Sanofi SA, and Japan's Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., among others, are developing drugs, forging collaborations, and bankrolling smaller companies that seek breakthroughs in drug discovery here.
"It's absolutely the right thing to do," said Michael Ringel,a partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group who focuses on health care business. "A hub like Cambridge is really unique in the world in terms of the internal and external talent you can access. It's not just about accessing molecules. It's about accessing the expertise to know which approaches will work. You can hire these people directly, or you can walk across the street and talk to them."
Ringel said it can cost a company more than $2 billion to get a drug approved when the cost of failures is factored in. "There's a lot of money that goes into molecules that never make it to the market," he said. Given that expense, Ringel said, drug makers can improve their odds — and share the financial risk — by reaching beyond their own labs through collaboration.
J&J, which has operations in about 60 countries, is no stranger to Massachusetts. Its neurosurgery and orthopaedic product unit, Depuy Synthesis Cos., has 1,600 employees in Raynham and Bridgewater, where it makes sports medicine products and tissue repair devices. It has worked with Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Cambridge on the development of a drug to treat hepatitis C. And it has struck research partnerships with top Cambridge players such as the Broad Institute, the Koch Institute, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But until now, J&J has kept a relatively low profile in the Boston area and Kendall Square, ground zero for the region's burgeoning biomedical cluster, even as it established centers in other innovation centers such as London and Menlo Park, Calif.
Urban said his goal is to "dramatically simplify the process of collaborating with J&J," especially in therapeutic areas such as cancer, neuroscience, immunology, and infectious diseases, as well as medical devices and diagnostics. "We're definitely focused on the open community of problem solvers, and I don't think there's a place that rivals Boston," he said.
Boston-area scientists and entrepreneurs already are familiar with the company and its global reach, but it will now have a team of senior research and financial professionals on the ground to talk about intellectual property, clinical programs, and potential deals, he said.
While the center officially opens Thursday, the company has been assembling its Boston team since the beginning of the year and occupying the new innovation center for the past month.
J&J will start with about 20 employees but expects to add another 10 to 15 by this time next year, Urban said. The center is designed to look more like a start-up than a multinational conglomerate, with open space and no assigned cubicles.
"What we do differently is making the collaborations with external partners work," Stoffels said. "I'm very convinced that new science comes from the diversity of ideas out there."