Q&A: Children's National CEO talks about research ambitions for partnership with JLABS

Children's National Health System is partnering with healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson to open a 32,000-square-foot JLABS life sciences incubator in the nation's capital. (Children's National Health System)

It's not often a piece of property with existing research facilities in a perfect location comes on the market.

So when a 12-acre portion of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus in Washington, D.C., became available a few years ago, it was too good an opportunity for Children's National Health System to pass up. The pediatric research hospital is now in the midst of building a new $190 million pediatric research and innovation campus on the site that is expected to open in 2020.

Last month, the health system announced a partnership with healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson to open a 32,000-square-foot JLABS life sciences incubator there. The J&J incubator—which is the company's 13th such location—will create space on that campus to co-locate startup pharmaceutical, medical device, consumer and health technology companies seeking to translate pediatric research into new treatments and technologies, officials said.

It's all part of an ecosystem focused on pediatric research that Children's National CEO Kurt Newman, M.D., envisions building in the nation's capital. 

FierceHealthcare spoke with him to learn more about his ambitions for the campus. Here's our conversation, edited lightly for length and clarity.

FierceHealthcare: Why did you decide to partner with Johnson & Johnson to bring JLABS to Children's National?

Kurt Newman: I knew that we needed to have a recognized, incredible partner to create a sustainable ecosystem around research and innovation, particularly focused on children. And as we did that survey, Johnson & Johnson and JLABS came to the top. They had a lot of experience in a lot different markets. They are a babies-and-children-and-families company. That’s what they started as. And so did we. So there was this real convergence in mission.

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FH: How did you convince Johnson & Johnson to bring JLABS to Children's National?

KN: When we began talking to them, I just saw this opportunity there. I didn’t have to convince them much because when you look at the market in the District of Columbia and what’s happening here with Children’s National and all the possible public and private partnerships that we can have here with the government and the NIH and the FDA, it really made a lot of sense.

FH: What is your vision for this campus?

KN: We’re not doing enough for our children. We’re not investing enough, we’re not focused when you look at the research budgets or how companies are being formed or what their markets are. Children just aren’t on the radar. So I had this idea for using our location here in Washington, D.C., as one of the top children’s hospitals to catalyze and change that. The serendipity was there was this possibility with the Walter Reed campus which had always been a research campus for the military.

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FH: What difficulties have you run to realizing this project?

KN: The first big hurdle was to get the land transferred from the Army, and with a lot of help, we were able to do that. The next big hurdle was to really begin envisioning what type of partners we wanted to have and how we would operationalize it and finance it. But as people began to understand it, they took hold of it and I can’t say it’s been easy, but when you put children at the center of what you do, it helps focus people on doing the right thing.

FH: How will this change the research Children’s National is already doing?

KN: The great opportunity here is to take some of our research and physicians and locate them at this campus. But what we’re really excited about, in addition to space and capacity, is the ability to bring in partners and work alongside them. When you think about how science is done these days with team science, with partners and collaborators, creating this culture of not only innovation but commercialization, is huge. So you have these startup companies and then you have our researchers working alongside them on rare diseases, on device development. Then, if you are the CEO of a company, you can get to the NIH or the FDA or to the patent office all on the same day here in Washington. It just makes it very efficient. I saw that also as accelerating our own research.

FH: How does impact Children's National on the business side?

KN: One of the biggest impacts is doing more for kids and bringing this research and innovation companies technology faster to the bedside. That’s going to help our kids, that’s going to help kids all over the world. To be a little selfish about it, it will help our companies, our researchers. We’ll be able to attract talent and we’ll be able to get these solutions in our hospital and we can be a site for advances. If people are testing or have new therapies that are really good for kids, we’re going to be at the front of the pack ... Nobody’s done a pediatric campus for research and innovation. That marks us as a leader. Who wouldn’t want to maybe bring their child here, or come to work here or bring their startup company here or give us a research grant or whatever? It really puts us in that top tier.