5 Questions with Rachel Rath, MBA, MPH, Director, BARDA Alliance for Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS @ Washington, DC

“5 Questions With…” is a weekly BioBuzz series where we reach out to interesting people in the BioHealth Capital Region to share a little about themselves, their work, and maybe something completely unrelated. This edition features 5 Questions with Rachel Rath, MBA, MPH, Director, BARDA Alliance for Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS @ Washington, DC.

Rachel is the Director of the BARDA Alliance for Johnson & Johnson Innovation, based at JLABS @ Washington, DC. In this role, she is responsible for managing the BLUE KNIGHT™ collaboration between Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS (JLABS) and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).  BLUE KNIGHT™ focuses on addressing public-health threats and emerging infectious diseases by supporting companies with emerging science and technology solutions that aim to improve health security and responses.  Rachel is responsible for the strategic direction, alliance management, and oversight of all operational activities related to the collaboration with BARDA, including managing the sourcing and selection of high potential companies for JLABS locations and leading a cross-departmental team to develop global educational programming.

Before joining JLABS, Rachel was the Chief of Staff for the National Evaluation System for health Technology Coordinating Center (NESTcc)— a Medical Device Innovation Consortium (MDIC) initiative that was established with funding from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and was recognized in September 2019 as one of the first collaborative communities with FDA participation. She was responsible for helping lead the initial development of NESTcc and managing strategy and operations, including overseeing internal and external governance, communications, sustainability planning, and stakeholder engagement. From 2014 to 2017, Rachel worked at PCORI, helping to launch the National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network (PCORnet), a national effort to engage patients and leverage electronic health data with the aim to improve the speed and efficiency of clinical research in the United States.

Rachel received her MBA from Georgetown University and MPH in global health policy from The George Washington University.

1. Walk us through your career up to your current role as Director, BARDA Alliance at Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS where you manage the BLUE KNIGHT™ collaboration.

The enduring theme in my career has been a focus on the intersection of public health and policy. While I’ve spent my career in the Washington, D.C. area exploring this complex space, the journey from my early positions to now has not been entirely linear. I began my career providing behavioral therapy to children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and each new role has provided an opportunity to deeper explore avenues for changing the status quo. I spent several years in public policy offices of disease-specific organizations and working with the aim to advance public policy priorities. During this time, I focused on addressing a broad array of healthcare issues in areas including telemedicine, federal research funding programs, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD). I became passionate about bringing together diverse multi-stakeholder perspectives to overcome barriers, particularly in advancing scientific research and innovation.

I was fortunate to be able to bring this passion to PCORI, which I joined just a few years after it formed and helped launch PCORnet. This resource brought together federal research partners, health systems, clinicians, patients and caregivers, health plans, and industry partners to use real-world evidence with the aim to answer critical research questions. I built on this experience while at MDIC, helping to launch a collaboration with the U.S. FDA—NESTcc— that used real-world evidence to accelerate medical device research pre- and post-market. These multi-stakeholder initiatives have further emphasized my passion for stakeholder engagement, the importance of public-private partnerships, and the vast amount of data that is generated in routine activity and routine courses of care.

Joining Johnson & Johnson Innovation, supporting the announcement of JLABS @ Washington, DC, and leading our collaboration with BARDA has been a unique opportunity to leverage my past experiences to directly support the innovation community. By launching this joint initiative, we have the chance to help change the trajectory of future global health threats.

2. You’ve been with Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS for about a year now. Tell about your role and the relationship with BARDA to form BLUE KNIGHT™.

Blue Knight was established and envisioned from our mutual interest with BARDA to spur innovation in priority areas of interest. By bringing together the strengths and capabilities of our two organizations, we aim to provide unique support to companies that have promising science and technology with the potential to combat global health threats. The collaboration was initially announced in conjunction with the announcement of JLABS @ Washington, DC prior to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Over the last year, we have pivoted to support JLABS companies working on potential solutions to combat COVID-19 and future threats. In August 2020, we formally announced the joint initiative as Blue Knight, alongside news of our first Blue Knight companies. We’ve since continued to bring in new companies through our rolling application.

While JLABS @ Washington, DC is the hub for the collaboration, companies can also be accepted at select Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS locations around the world. Blue Knight companies gain access to the JLABS ecosystem and all the traditional JLABS benefits, but are also offered unique incentives only available through this initiative. These unique benefits include fee assistance for access to JLABS, dedicated mentorship from BARDA, and at JLABS @ Washington, DC, Blue Knight companies also have access to dedicated equipment. The mentorship from BARDA is complementary to the mentorship all JLABS companies receive from the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies and provides a unique opportunity to receive input from both commercial and preparedness perspectives, as companies tackle both applications for their science and technologies.

3. How would you explain Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS to somebody who has never heard of you before?

Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS is the incubator arm of the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies and part of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, a global network designed to support and harness innovation happening outside of the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies. We have 13 locations around the world, including Shanghai, Belgium, and the newest location opening this spring in Washington, D.C.

By joining Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS, our goal is that companies are able to focus on their science, while we help remove the operational barriers to accelerating science and innovation. Companies within Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS have access to state-of-the-art facilities, as well as mentorship from the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies, a Resource Hub, an Investor Hub, and robust programming throughout the year.

What I find most compelling about Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS is that by joining, you don’t just become part of a physical space, you become part of a global community made up of a people dedicated to helping you succeed. For those of us working at Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS, we’re passionate about our mission to help advance resident companies. We eagerly joined Johnson & Johnson Innovation to help support start-ups and innovators who may be working on the next disruptive technologies to help improve patient health. Our goal is to support you and your science so that you have the opportunity to create the next success story.

4. How do you see Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS playing an essential role in the BioHealth Capital Region?

As someone who has been in the Capital Region throughout my professional career, I’m particularly thrilled that the Children’s National Research and Innovation Campus will be home to JLABS @ Washington, DC. I believe there’s no better place to launch the next generation of research and innovation than in the nation’s capital. The new Campus, sitting on the Historic Walter Reed Campus, has played a role in the district’s medical history since the early 1900s. It’s a privilege to be part of the campus community striving to advance medical innovations, solve global health challenges, and develop breakthroughs in patient care on this historic site.

Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS will be part of this integrated community and our goal is to collaborate with regional expertise at local and regional universities and research institutions, government entities, non-profits, patient organizations, and federal funders. Through Blue Knight and the broader JLABS @ Washington, DC site, we’re aiming to drive innovation in priority areas of infectious disease and global public health, including broad antivirals, platform technologies for vaccines and therapeutics, and digital health technologies, to name a few. The local ecosystem is rich with expertise and talent and I am looking forward to helping bring stakeholders together to tackle the challenges we face from known and unknown global health threats of the future.

5. Aside from necessities, what one thing could you not go a day without?

I value getting time outside every day. It helps me clear my mind and re-focus. Growing up in rural community in New Hampshire, it can still be overwhelming living in an urban area—even after 15 years! Staying active through outdoor activities helps me re-charge without technology and distractions. This year my new outdoor activity has been road biking. I’ve enjoyed being able to explore the ever-evolving city from a different perspective and hopping off to enjoy new neighborhoods.

Thank you to Rachel Rath, MBA, MPHfor participating in the ‘5 Questions with BioBuzz’ series and stay tuned for more interviews with others from across the BioHealth Capital Region and beyond.

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