Beyond the immediate: Addressing Health Equity in Healthcare Early-Stage Innovation

COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd elevated the seismic disparities in health outcomes and racial equity around the world. Everyone stood up and took notice. Most made proclamations, others wrote checks and some started programmatic initiatives. Few have been able to attain systemic change that is embedded deeply into the fabric of how we live and work. At Johnson & Johnson Innovation, we wanted to do what we could for sustainable change, starting with the seeds of healthcare innovation

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is embedded in Our Credo, our true north at the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies (Johnson & Johnson or J&J). In 2020, we heard the call for change, and we felt compelled to answer the need through Our Race to Health Equity (ORTHE), a $100 million commitment to invest and promote potential solutions for health equity over the next five years. We have challenged ourselves to create efforts that are differentiated and address aspects of health equity that have the potential to create systemic and sustainable impact.

For example, through ORTHE, Johnson & Johnson established the Health Equity Innovation Challenge, which aims to foster innovation, entrepreneurship and socioeconomic impact by supporting innovative solutions from local entrepreneurs, start-ups, innovators and community-based organizations that have the potential to advance health equity. The 14 awardees of this Challenge are applying their lived experience and a deep understanding of the communities they serve to generate solutions to help close racial health and mortality gaps in six cities where Black and Brown individuals experience significant health inequities: Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City and Philadelphia.

In addition, Johnson & Johnson Innovation is supporting ORTHE by focusing on the global startup ecosystems we serve –– thereby reaching the seeds of healthcare innovation. Our mission at Johnson & Johnson Innovation is to support startups looking to solve our most pressing health problems. We collaborate and partner with early-stage companies globally through incubation, partnerships, equity investments or any customized combination of these vehicles, so we have the ability to help our partners consider health equity at the earliest stages of their efforts.

After many discussions across our global team, we constructed an integrated, multifaceted approach, designed to infuse the principles of DEI throughout the design and development of the technology as well as across the teams and the commercial models in healthcare innovation. We believe that if we support DEI in the early stages of a company’s life –– when they’re creating their identity, their research focus and approach, their culture and their solutions –– we have the opportunity to help create a seismic yet sustainable shift to address health disparities. We know our approach isn’t going to be perfect, but we’re committed to learning and iterating.

Below outlines some of the core elements of our plan, which represents the beginning of our learning journey and our commitment to ensure DEI is a business imperative for our early-stage innovation partners.

Assess and Champion Innovation for Health Equity
We created our first-ever health equity assessment tool (HEAT) for our portfolio companies to establish a baseline on the integration of the principles of health equity in the design, development and delivery of their healthcare solutions. Prefacing the assessment tool, each innovator has the opportunity to complete an e-Learning module, which outlines a common framework and understanding of health equity, in addition to potential approaches to address. After completing the HEAT, each innovator will get feedback on their plan and be introduced to potential partners for support. Most important, Johnson & Johnson Innovation will aggregate the data across the portfolio of companies annually to measure progress over time. Our commitment to “measure what we treasure” will help keep us all accountable to progress and to learn the best approaches to caring for all patients.

To support understanding of health equity, diversity and inclusion as a business imperative, the e-Learning module is available to everyone in the early-stage health innovation ecosystem – whether or not they are a Johnson & Johnson Innovation portfolio company.

“Our goal is to systematically integrate the principles of health equity into the design and development of our partners’ technology and their teams so that these healthcare solutions have the best possible opportunity to reach all patients.”

Fiona Mack, PhD
Head, Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS @ TMC
Lead, Johnson & Johnson Innovation Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Deepening Our Commitment to Assess Diversity Across Johnson & Johnson Innovation Portfolio
Over the years, Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS has collected diversity data across its portfolio, including real-time reporting on the JLABS Navigator website, where it currently shows 32% of the portfolio of companies are women-led and 30% are minority-led.

Over time, we realized the need for diversity went beyond the leadership teams of our companies. In the United States, only 17% of board seats in the life sciences industry are occupied by underrepresented groups, with Black leaders holding a mere 5% and LatinX leaders just 2% of these board roles. Board members are just as critical to shaping the trajectory of healthcare innovation as leadership teams. And if these leaders reflect the diversity of the populations we’re  meant to serve, the portfolio of companies will better understand the need and the challenges associated with delivering the right solutions in the best way for all populations to access.

Therefore, we believe tracking diversity in board members and leadership teams is critical to making a sustainable, positive impact on health outcomes. With that, we have moved forward to invite all portfolio companies across Johnson & Johnson Innovation to self-report on diversity within their leadership teams and their board of directors. This data, which we’ll aggregate and report on annually, will help hold us accountable to find opportunities to support our companies to progress against these metrics.  

Johnson & Johnson Innovation Board Fellows
Given that we’re collecting diversity data, particularly for board of directors across the portfolio of companies, we want to provide solutions beyond tracking metrics. That’s why we also created the Johnson & Johnson Innovation Board Fellows –– a select community of diverse potential board members who will participate in a one-year, multi-faceted program to better position them to be considered for potential board leadership.

The inaugural class of North American participants just kicked off their one-year program in a session with Alex Gorsky, Executive Chairman of Johnson & Johnson.  After this session, the Board Fellows will participate in educational programs, executive coaching, media coaching, personal brand building, expert-led diversity round tables and networking opportunities with Johnson & Johnson leadership teams and Johnson & Johnson Innovation portfolio companies in the early-stage innovation ecosystem. In addition, members of our equity investment team, JJDC, Inc. will be paired with and provide mentorship to the Board Fellows. We will increase the number of candidates and geographies year over year.

“From my daily work with portfolio companies and business partners across Asia Pacific as the Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS @ Shanghai, I see first-hand the importance of having diverse board leadership in early-stage companies. These unique perspectives help shape the trajectory of the company’s growth. We’re committed to providing the educational resources, mentorship and community to enhance the opportunity for diverse board director candidates to get a seat at the table. We believe this will help bring the unique voices of all patients to the design, development and delivery of healthcare solutions.”
Sharon Chan, PhD, MBA, MPH
Head, Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS @ Shanghai
Lead, Johnson & Johnson Innovation Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Crowdsourcing Innovation from Diverse Sources
We have also heavily invested in diverse innovators and equitable potential solutions through the Johnson & Johnson Innovation QuickFire Challenges, our crowdsourcing innovation platform that provides funding, resources and mentorship from experts across Johnson & Johnson to help advance potential groundbreaking healthcare solutions. In 2021, we launched multiple QuickFire Challenges that engaged or provided resources and opportunities for close to 400 people from underrepresented backgrounds. These QuickFire Challenges included the Diversity in Innovation QFC, Black Innovators in Skin Health QFC, California Life Science Association (CLSA) Inspired QFC for Diverse Innovators, Nurses Innovate QFC on Access to Care, Decoding Disparities QFC, and Washington, DC Health Innovation QFC.

This year, we launched four additional DEI-focused QuickFire Challenges that aim to reduce health disparities and serve historically underserved communities, including:

The progress we have made so far is only the beginning of our everlasting commitment. As we continue to create more meaningful programs and resources, we encourage you to follow us, work with us, hold us accountable and make your own commitments to support diversity, equity and inclusion in health innovation that drive equitable approaches to solving long-standing health disparities.

“Johnson & Johnson Innovation QuickFire Challenges are a valuable tool to crowdsource the best science and technology to help solve one of the biggest healthcare challenges in the world – health inequity. We know that the next great idea to address health equity can come from anywhere and we are committed to offering healthcare innovators opportunities to showcase their inventions that aim to address long-standing health disparities.”
Erika Kula
Director, Sourcing Innovation, Johnson & Johnson Innovation
Lead, Johnson & Johnson Innovation Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

It’s not perfect, but we’re committed to learn
The size of the problem in health equity is humbling, and quite frankly, it was difficult to know how to get started. We didn’t want to just check a box. We didn’t want to just write a check. We wanted to help make systemic, sustainable change in how the industry works and we believe we can support that by starting at the front end of the healthcare innovation process.

Our hope is that as these early-stage companies and their potential solutions mature, DEI will be woven into the fabric of how these technologies and these teams develop and deliver potentially life-enhancing and lifesaving technologies. In our ideal world, all populations will have the opportunity to attain their full health potential, regardless of race, color, gender, sexual identity, geography of origin, religion, ability, age or socioeconomic circumstances. We know our plan is not complete, nor is it perfect, but we’re committed to learning and evolving so that we may do our small part in giving all patients an equitable opportunity to live their best lives.

Visit our website to find out more about the additional programs we’re leading and how you can support our efforts or partner with us.