BARDA enlisting start-ups in fight against COVID-19 via JLABS collaboration


A collaboration between JLABS and BARDA gives the government agency access to start-ups that it needs to fast track new, innovative COVID-19 therapies and diagnostics it otherwise would struggle to find.

The Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) incubator and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) launched the Blue Knight collaboration in April of 2019 to accelerate development of technologies that can address public health threats, including emerging infectious diseases.

The partners are now leveraging the program to fight COVID-19, and have selected the first seven JLABS portfolio companies they think can address perceived “gaps” in the current COVID-19 pipeline.

“We’d had ongoing conversations with BARDA about a problem they had,” Melinda Richter, global head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS, told BioCentury. “Their biggest challenge was that they knew the best innovation came from small companies around the world, but given they were a government organization, only big companies could afford and had the capabilities to negotiate partnerships with them.”

The Blue Knight initiative aims to solve that problem by using JLABs as a conduit through which BARDA can access start-up innovation.

“They wanted to partner with us to be that intermediary between a global community of innovators and BARDA,” Richter said.

As a first step, JLABS is as good an access point as any. The network has hosted 672 current and former companies across 14 facilities in the U.S., Canada, Europe and China. The most recent to open, JLABS@Washington, D.C., is the hub of the Blue Knight program.

Richter said that once the pandemic hit, JLABS put out an invitation to all its companies to apply for the Blue Knight initiative. A team at J&J made a first cut out of the original 45 applicants, and BARDA made the final decision on the seven most promising proposals.

These first seven JLABS companies are developing technologies that could either treat, prevent or better monitor COVID-19 infections or future coronavirus outbreaks.

Blue Knight companies

CompanyTechnologyDevelopment StatusJLABS Location
7 Hills Pharma LLC
Oral immune activatorsPreclinicalHouston
Autonomous Therapeutics Inc.Pan-coronavirus prophylatic antiviralPreclinical
New York City
Epic BioCas13d nuclease-based antiviralPreclinical
San Francisco
Gabi SmartCareDigital wearable for monitoring respiratory disease
Genome BiologicsAI-guided drug-disease matching platformPreclinical
Persephone Biosciences Inc.Microbiome therapeuticsPreclinical
San Diego
Specific Biologics Inc.
Gene editing via dual cleaving nuclease


Each company will receive up to $500,000 in financial support and mentorship from BARDA and J&J to accelerate development of their programs.

Richter said the aim is to accelerate each program to a go/no-go inflection point. If the program has promise, the expectation is the company will be advanced enough at that time to negotiate a bigger contract or partnership with BARDA itself, she said.

With the first round of JLABS applications completed, Richter said the plan is to open up Blue Knight to the broader biotech community, beyond start-ups incubating at JLABS. She said the initiative will start a rolling application process where any company can apply and gain access to the resources, funding and access to BARDA that Blue Knight membership entails. 

“Any innovator around the world that wants to take a look at BARDA, we can do that. The problem is a lot of times you don’t even know how to access those people,” she said.

Richter added that there’s no cap on how many companies can join Blue Knight.

The initiative will continue to look beyond COVID-19 as well.

“Remember this is not just about COVID-19,” Richter said. “It is about any future health security threat. So whatever we’re looking at is also about anticipating what might be coming after this or in conjunction with this. Our goal is to get in front of these things.”


The seven companies joining the Blue Knight program are deploying new modalities or biological insights in the fight against COVID-19.

7 Hills Pharma LLC may be the most advanced. The Houston-based biotech is developing oral integrin activators that aim to improve the efficacy of immunotherapy in refractory solid tumors and infectious diseases.

The biotech’s lead program is 7HP349, a small molecule activator of VLA-4 and CD11a-CD18 that promotes immune cell adhesion. A Phase I safety trial is expected to start later this year. 7 Hills has generated preclinical data in COVID-19 that shows 7HP349 significantly increases IgG antibody responses when used in combination with a COVID-19 vaccine.

Persephone Biosciences Inc. also is hoping to improve the efficacy of coronavirus vaccines with its technology, but is approaching immune stimulation from the microbiome. The company’s AI-driven discovery platform has generated a microbiome-targeted therapeutic that could boost the immune response to either a vaccine or an antiviral.

Persephone expects its lead program to enter the clinic for COVID-19 later this year.

Two companies are harnessing different gene editing technologies to develop antiviral approaches for COVID-19. 

Specific Biologics Inc. is using its Dualase dual cleaving nuclease gene editing platform to develop a nanoparticle-delivered gene editor that could target and eliminate the genome of SARS-CoV-2 virus in patients’ lungs.

San Francisco-based Epic Bio is developing a Cas13d-based program that would degrade viral RNA sequences with the potential for use as a prophylactic antiviral therapy.

Autonomous Therapeutics Inc. is hoping its technology can address both COVID-19 and any future coronavirus pandemics. The biotech’s broad spectrum therapeutics are designed to evolve along with the targeted pathogen to confer a lifelong “resistance-proof” control of the infectious disease. The approach could translate into a pan-coronavirus prophylactic.

Genome Biologics’ Genimaps platform uses AI-driven target identification to develop RNAi therapies. While the company’s programs are largely focused on cardiovascular indications, its GEN-COV program has been accelerated into IND-enabling studies for COVID-19.

Beyond the therapeutic interventions, one company in the first Blue Knight cohort — Gabi SmartCare — is developing a digital wearable. The Gabi remote monitoring bracelet was designed to monitor chronic respiratory diseases, especially in pediatric patients. Under Blue Knight, that same technology will be applied to COVID-19 patients for early detection and recovery surveillance. 

By Stephen Hansen, Associate Editor
Aug 28, 2020 | 6:25 PM CDT