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Spotlight on Women

Melinda Richter, Head of JLABS, Johnson & Johnson Innovation


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Photo by Jenny Siegwart

How did you get started?

I was living in Beijing because I was recruited into a fast-track telecom company. I got bit by a bug and was hospitalized, where they told me I was dying. I was struck by the irony of the fact that they could not take a blood test and figure out what I had. I vowed that if I made it, I was going to change the industry and make it more advanced. It’s an industry that is so important to all of us.

I was a good businessperson, so I moved to San Francisco to create a company that would make it faster, easier, and cheaper to create health care solutions: Prescience International. Before that I spent a year to get my thoughts together and earn my MBA at Insead, just outside of Paris.

I created innovation centers for early-stage life science companies. Then I partnered with Johnson & Johnson to create labs. We created a whole new strategy called J&J Innovation, JLABS.

Dr. Paul Janssen, head of Janssen Laboratories, said, “We have to do it, because the patients are waiting for it.”

There are 50 incubator companies headquartered here on this 300,000-square-foot complex, working on solutions for infectious diseases, cancer, skin diseases, and more.

What is your background?

I grew up in northern Saskatchewan in a family of eight to immigrant parents. We had no indoor plumbing, no running water, and no electricity. I was No. 8, so things had improved a bit for me. I was the only one who left Canada and the only one to get a college education.

Who inspired you? When I was in third grade, I tested at the seventh grade level. I had the brains and I got university scholarships. National women’s leadership organizations gave me scholarships. I couldn’t have made it without them. I lived in dorms my first year of college, and my roommate had leukemia. I was affected by that, as I cared for her and thought that there must be a cure for this illness. It moved me to think about science solutions. 

After my first year in college, I was recruited to work for the deputy premier, or what would be our lieutenant governor, of the province.

“I would like to make the science industry as sexy as the tech industry.”

How are you helping other women?

We have educational programs for our CEOs and we have a requirement that at least one woman is on every panel. We track how many women are CEOs of our companies, and how many women are in our programs. We always want to be better than the market. We started a group called The Women Deal Makers and we meet every quarter to discuss common issues. Our purpose is to have community, and help guide each other.

How do you give back?

I serve on academic advisory boards, support causes that have to do with women, education for girls, and anything to do with the United Nations.

What do you do for recreation?

I have lived in many places around the world, but one of my most beautiful experiences is a great run in Torrey Pines Reserve. I love adventure travel and spending time with friends or reading a good book.

What are your future plans?

Changing the way the industry works so that we can live in a better world. I would like to make the science industry as sexy as the tech industry. I would like to write a book, something creative, which is different from what I do now. 

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