Driving Diversity in the Life Sciences: A Conversation with Johnson & Johnson Innovation

In 2021, companies founded by women secured less than 2% of the total venture capital funding in the U.S, and just 1% of the total capital invested in venture-backed start-ups in Europe. And a recent analysis of biotech and pharma companies found men fill more than 9 in 10 CEO positions. To address these disparities and consider how to best support women in the life sciences, we sought the advice of our leaders, innovators and JLABS resident companies across Johnson & Johnson Innovation. We believe that the more we invest in women, the more we’ll help ensure the life science community reflects all those we seek to serve.

What fundraising barriers do female entrepreneurs face? How can we expand representation of women and people of color in the life sciences - from biotech to venture?

"If they’re not ready, we invest in them in a different way – by forging relationships." - Marian Nakada, Vice President, Venture Investments, Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JJDC, Inc.
Sean Evans
Venture Investments, Johnson & Johnson Innovation - JJDC, Inc.

The reasons for fundraising barriers are complex; however, one likely major contributor is underrepresentation among the investors who influence which companies are selected for investment. In addition to the lack of representation amongst investors and investment partners, disparities also exist in the number of biotech companies started by women as well as representation on company director and scientific advisory boards. As a result, there may be fewer connections and networking opportunities to the resources needed to successfully raise capital. The aforementioned gaps and challenges to fundraising also apply to people of color, although the statistics for this group are even more stark.

In response to these gaps, many VC firms, biopharma companies, academic, and government/non-profit groups have developed and implemented programs that aim to overcome these barriers and increase the number of companies led by underrepresented founders. There are several approaches that are being taken including accelerator programs that increase the pipeline of entrepreneurs and investors in the life science sector, creation of VC funds focused specifically on funding women-led and racial/ethnic underrepresented entrepreneurs, and VC firms including criteria or encouraging prospective startups to include underrepresented entrepreneurs as part of their C-suite or boards. In addition to these types of programs, I believe additional investment in measuring the baseline representation among startup entrepreneurs and investors, better understanding their experienced and/or perceived barriers, as well as the progress made will be an important contributor to expand and/or evolve these programs, as necessary.

Fiona MacLaughlin
Venture Investments, Johnson & Johnson Innovation - JJDC, Inc.

One of the barriers facing female and minority founders is confidence. Not only do they underestimate how good they really are at doing their job, potentially because they have been overlooked for promotion or have not been sufficiently championed in the past, but there are often limited role models they can aspire to emulate, learn from, and be mentored and championed by. When faced with a dialogue or presentation with an investor with whom it is difficult to find common ground, striking up and maintaining a confident demeanor can often be challenging.

One method to expand representation could be to deliberately and ruthlessly build networks outside of one’s social, gender, and ethnic circles. This can not only help build up the confidence of women and minority groups but it can also help forge relationships with female and minority founders. It is this two-way communication that I think is so critical to foster and nurture.

How do we foster awareness and fuel innovation with the aim to improve healthcare for women and people of color?

"Improving health equity for individuals across the spectrum of humanity is a core need shared across our industry" - Erika Kula, Director, Sourcing Innovation, Johnson & Johnson Innovation - JLABS

J&J Innovation and Janssen R&D, in collaboration with the OCMO Health of Women team, launched the Maternal-fetal Immune Disorders QuickFire Challenge: Innovating for Health Equity. US-based innovators are invited to submit methodologies, tools, and technologies aiming to better understand the manifestations of immune-mediated diseases of pregnancy impacting historically marginalized communities. Awardees will receive grant funding from a total pool of $500,000, access to the global Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS network and mentorship. Learn more: http://jji.jnj/maternal-fetal

Maya Hardigan
Founder & CEO,
Mae, a JLABS @ Washington, DC Resident

Women and people of color have incredibly diverse experiences that shape how we consider and engage with our healthcare. As healthcare innovators, we need to think beyond one size fits all solutions – especially when we know those solutions have not historically served us all. Awareness often can be as simple as asking, “Where and how has your healthcare experience fallen short?” We now have an extraordinary opportunity to use technology and deep insights to create highly personalized healthcare experiences that can be embedded seamlessly and conveniently into daily life.

Sharon Chan
Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS @ Shanghai

Women’s History Month falls at the beginning of the Year of the Tiger, which by my tradition is marked by courage and ambition. As a female leader in Asia Pacific, courage for me means speaking up, calling things out when they aren’t equitable, and changing the way we work to be more open minded, inclusive, and impactful. In 2022, we have the potential to make huge improvements in healthcare for disadvantaged people everywhere, including women and people of color. However, change can’t happen without the commitment to engage and influence others, shape conversations, and motivate people to take action – and big change can’t happen without big ambitions. Today, I encourage everyone to dream big, think creatively, and act boldly to help improve the health and wellbeing of people of all walks of life around the world.

Joanice Thompson
Director of Community Engagement,
Acclinate, a JLABS @ Washington, DC Resident

In order to foster awareness and fuel innovation you must remain in the heart of the community where the issues lie. You must position people as the stakeholders and allow community partners to be those who benefit from enriching the lives of those stakeholders. In order to improve healthcare for women and people of color you must continue to listen and respond to the stakeholder’s needs.


How could startups create an inclusive culture where women and people from underrepresented backgrounds can thrive?

"I believe that Jurata has created an inclusive culture where women and people from underrepresented backgrounds can thrive" - Sheila Mikhail, CEO & Co-Founder, Jurata Thin Film, Inc., a JLABS @ TMC Resident
Fiona Mack
Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS @ TMC

The strongest example of company culture is the action and behaviors of the senior leaderships. The message of inclusivity cannot be in stark contrast to the promotion, recruiting, and career development opportunities within an organization. For an early startup, it may be daunting to consider diversity, equity and inclusion as you combat the many ‘no’s’ you receive during a typical day. I contend that these efforts are even more paramount as a startup in crafting the vision for the company and imagining what their impact could be beyond their technology. Individuals from diverse backgrounds will be attracted to an environment that promotes open discourse, rewards accomplishments, and values all employees. This creates an atmosphere where all can thrive based upon their abilities. Having individuals on your team who have overcome as many ‘no’s’ as they have achieved their goals can be a great asset.

Dozie Amuzie
Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS @ Toronto

Two things startups should consider is to create a team that (proportionally) looks like the community they hope to serve, and to build a team where women and people from underrepresented backgrounds feel safe and represented. Representation at the board, executive team, or founding team helps set the tone. Having diverse people at all levels is only the first step, and the second step is understanding the majority-minority cultural dynamic of the organization to assure that people from diverse backgrounds feel comfortable to speak up.

Join us all month long as we further our commitment to help advance gender equality within the life sciences – both within our own four walls and beyond. Subscribe to our email newsletter and follow along on our Twitter and Instagram channels.


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