In a previous report in The Washington Informer, we announced a new partnership formed by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, the District’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership and Johnson & Johnson Innovation who launched a health equity challenge focusing on reducing chronic health care challenges in the District.
However, the program’s real focus rests with assisting organizations whose goals address reducing disparities that impact health outcomes in communities of color and include innovative approaches which can transform patient outcomes in maternal mortality, cardiovascular diseases and systemic autoimmunity or kidney diseases.
The program, JLABS@Washington, D.C., Johnson and Johnson Innovation, serves as a 32,000-square-foot incubator located at the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus in Northwest, situated on a portion of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center Campus.
But while only days remain before the June 11 deadline for applicants to submit their proposals in efforts to secure one of the four grants in the QuickFire Challenge, other businesses have already taken up residency in the JLABS facilities including two Black-owned businesses, Acclinate and K’ept Health.
Del Smith, Acclinate’s CEO and co-founder, and Sheena Franklin, CEO and founder of K’ept Health, shared their views on what attracted them to JLABS as well as the benefits they believe will come through their newly-forged alliances.
Sally Allain, head of JLABS@Washington, D.C., Johnson and Johnson Innovation, said the key to the program remains simple: helping minority-owned businesses secure a seat in the marketplace and achieving success.
“As we opened the facility in D.C., our focus was to target science and technology on the East Coast, engaging companies with Black CEOs, some of whom may be first-time entrepreneurs and to identify companies and bring them into the incubator with our support in driving solutions for customers,” Allain said. “Part of our initiative and support is to bring light to great scientists and entrepreneurs and wrap our resources with them.”
“This is our 13th no-strings site to open and D.C. offers a vibrant, ecosystem that’s perfect for those working in transformational science and technology. Many of the companies who join us are diverse founders who are addressing the health needs of a diverse population. They’re working on disruptive technology which is sorely needed for minority populations who have long been underserved,” she said.
Smith’s company, Acclinate, with headquarters in Birmingham, Ala and another location in Huntsville, counts as an alpha institute for biotechnology. He said they’re a young company that’s big on ecosystem advances.
“This was a good move for us because we are able to combine being in D.C. with our focus on health disparities in a city where regulations, like those handed down by the FDA, routinely take place,” he said. “Being in a location where the major pharmaceutical companies are based is also important because the values and goals of those businesses are part of the terrain.”
“Health disparities and inequities are the direct outcome of the work we’re doing. Our success will be apparent if we’re able to secure an increase in the representation of minorities in clinical research and trials. Ultimately, drugs would then be created with the same levels of efficacy for everyone and not just those in the trials – volunteers who have historically been white.”
“We realize that Black-owned businesses in biotechnology and pharmaceutics are still a rarity. We know that when we’re at the table, most of the others do not look like us and so we have to provide additional proof and validation of what we can do. That doesn’t intimidate us, however. In fact, it can be seen as a benefit because we understand the inherent issues associated with the levels of mistrust related to the health care industry that have long existed in the Black community. After all, we’re part of that community,” Smith said.
Before founding K’ept Health, Franklin worked as a health care lobbyist for more than 20 years. But she wasn’t just a lobbyist – she was also a patient who suffered from a severe skin condition.
In her struggles to find a dermatologist who could help her, she realized that many did not understand the differences she faced due to her melanin-rich skin. She also found that significant systemic gaps existed in the dermatology industry. So, she went on a listening tour with women, particularly women of color. She eventually decided to build a data-driven app and culturally competent, integrative health platform to increase access to the best in dermatology care.
“Johnson & Johnson is one of the leading businesses in consumer health and having them as a mentor will allow my company to take in all of the information we can and apply that knowledge to our own business in terms of the consumer health experience that we offer,” Franklin said. “The pandemic has actually proven beneficial for us because we were already promoting a telemedicine platform. So, many of our potential patients and customers were already comfortable with the new format. That’s made it easier for us to attract more patients while requiring less education.”
“For the majority of Black-owned businesses, whether they’re technology-based or not, the critical issue is access to capital. Because we’re a deep tech startup company, it’s even more challenging for us to find the right investors. But the kind of exposure we’re now receiving because of our affiliation with JLABS is invaluable.”
“We’re based in the District and have our headquarters here. But we’re confident that we’ll soon be able to branch out into the region, especially along the East Coast. Along the way, we’ll be able to remain on top of the latest telemedicine laws in each state and align ourselves with those laws,” Franklin said.
For more about Acclinate, go to www.acclinate.com. For more about K’ept Health, go to www.kept.health. For more information and to apply for the JLABS QuickFire Challenge, go to http://jji.jnj/dc-inclusive.