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The new Center for Device Innovation will be located alongside JLABS @ TMC (pictured), inside a 600,000-square-foot building that used to serve as a Nabisco Cookie Factory.

Image: Eric Kayne

Johnson & Johnson, the company that makes tear-free baby shampoo but which also happens to be the world's most comprehensive medical device business, has announced plans to expand its role in the Texas Medical Center to include a Center for Device Innovation, led by none other than famous Houston heart surgeon and entrepreneur Dr. Billy Cohn.

The Center will focus on accelerating the development of medical devices through partnerships and potential acquisitions of small-scale startups. Its home will be inside the former Nabisco Cookie Factory, nestled next to another banner J&J project, JLABS at TMC, as well as the Med Center's two life science start-up incubators, TMCx and TMCx+.

Billy Cohn, a renowned heart surgeon who trained under Dr. Michael DeBakey, has become known as a medical device entrepreneur. With roughly 100 patents in his name, Dr. Cohn unsurprisingly also sits on the board of several successful medical device companies. He's part of a team hoping to implant the first totally artificial, continuous-flow heart into a human patient as early as next year. 

"Over the last decade or two, medical devices have played an increasingly important role in improving results and decreasing complications," says Cohn, who comes to the CDI @ TMC from the Texas Heart Institute, where he served as the director of THI's Center for Technology and Innovation. "TMC is the largest medical center on planet Earth. It's the perfect opportunity to gain synergies between TMC, with its opinion-leading doctors and medical scientists, and lab validation. The collaboration with Johnson & Johnson allowed us to conceive of a place where you can come up with the idea and see it through to fruition—all within walking distance, in one zip code."

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"From the time I was in med school, the change has been dramatic. TMC keeps growing and growing, and the people and talent are increasing," says Dr. Billy Cohn.

Image: Charles Ford

The center will include 20 or so full-time employees, Cohn says, including "brilliant engineers," who will partner with start-ups to fast-track their devices through design, prototyping, clinical trials and FDA approval. Unlike at JLABs, where companies lease space but maintain autonomy and can partner with or get acquired by outside companies, those who are selected for the Center for Device Innovation will partner with Johnson & Johnson, with the idea that a successful device would be acquired by the company. 

So what's in it for the startups? "Holy cow, it's a big win for them," Cohn says. "Having a company like J&J partner with them early on de-risks the technology, and having their expertise is invaluable—every misstep you could make, they've made before."

The move is the latest in the Texas Medical Center's aggressive push, under the leadership of Dr. Bobby Robbins, into the biotech industry, hoping to compete with the main industry hubs of Boston and the Bay Area. The goal is to get to a point where “every major pharma company and diagnostic and device company will have a location in Houston,” Robbins told Houstonia earlier this year.

To Cohn, the transformation is well on its way."It's changing right now. Walking in those environments, you have collisions with people that weren’t around in Houston five years ago. From the time I was in med school [at Baylor College of Medicine], the change has been dramatic. TMC keeps growing and growing, and the people and talent are increasing," Cohn says. "Johnson & Johnson’s commitment to the TMC is a huge win for Houston, not just with jobs and opportunities, but as a really important brick in the wall of making this a hub." 

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