Harnessing the Best Healthcare Innovations : Q&A with Michal Preminger, Ph.D., MBA, Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Boston

Throughout the Boston area, novel healthcare ideas flow as reliably as the Charles River — and indisputably, at a faster pace. But as Michal Preminger knows well, an idea will remain an idea unless the right team comes together to make it real.

As Executive Director of Harvard Medical School’s Office of Technology Development, Dr. Preminger drove partnering and commercialization for countless and diverse breakthrough innovations that emerged from Harvard laboratories. Now, as the new head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation’s Boston site since joining in August, she is again driving innovation by forging the essential connections that turn early-stage science into products that change lives.

Under her leadership, the team at Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Boston builds relationships across the eastern half of the U.S. with regional entrepreneurs, universities and institutes developing early-to mid- stage innovations across pharmaceutical, medical device and consumer health sectors.

Here, she shares why she made the jump to Johnson & Johnson Innovation and how she expects healthcare to transform over the next several years.


What excites you most about your new job as head of Johnson & Johnson’s Boston Innovation Center?

Having been intimately connected with Boston’s innovation scene for so long, I was excited to move to an environment in which I’d be able to advance great healthcare ideas further than I’ve ever been able to so far — all the way to the marketplace. In thinking about who would be the right partner for me, Johnson & Johnson stood out for its diverse, multi-sectorial development capabilities and breadth of resources and its special relationship with consumers and patients, stemming from its Credo. I believe that we are on the verge of an enormous revolution in healthcare. Johnson & Johnson not only understands this, but is acting on it. Here in Boston’s innovation circles, Johnson & Johnson’s infrastructure, experience and brand are well known and respected. With all that is happening in healthcare today, I believe this role will present many amazing opportunities to drive forward important new solutions serving consumers and patients. With time, I expect to see a convergence of these two categories as we manage to offer even more prevention and early intervention, rather than only treating disease.


How does your recent work at Harvard and prior work with biotech companies benefit what you’re looking to accomplish now at the Boston Innovation Center?

Most of all, it informs my perspective in a way that helps us connect with entrepreneurs. I have lived in the innovator domain for a long time and carry their state of mind — dreams, anxieties and all. Whether through my work in academia, at small startups, or with companies moving into unfamiliar markets, I fully relate to the concerns and excitement entrepreneurs feel when they see their baby move into new hands. For a company like Johnson & Johnson that interacts heavily with innovators, it’s critical to have an intuitive understanding of that state of mind. One of my goals here is to ensure that the Boston Innovation Center continues to be a place where innovators feel well understood and extremely comfortable.


You also bring a unique perspective from growing up in Israel. How has that affected who you are today as a business leader?

I was born in Israel when the country was only 16 years old. Everyone was building something new. Like most around me, my family came to Israel from Europe as refugees who owned nothing, and - with nothing to lose — it was all about the future, with great hopes and grand dreams. Growing up in that environment was inspiring and certainly shaped my mindset for innovation and appetite for risk. But, being part of the nascent biotech industry in Israel, I also learned about the pitfalls that companies encounter as they expand; Israel is fantastic in starting innovation, but growing big companies is a major challenge. Today, being part of Johnson & Johnson, I am bringing that spirit of innovation and creativity, as well as deep respect for what a big company can contribute in moving early innovations to market.


You know the healthcare startup scene better than most, especially in Boston. What are the biggest mistakes you see entrepreneurs make when seeking financing or partnerships?

Many founders and startups focus on financial payoff and worry about dilution; I’ve seen companies try to artificially create urgency, oversell what they have or play hard-to-get. But this undercuts the opportunity to have a genuine and transparent discussion with potential partners — transparency that can translate into a better plan with appropriate resourcing that will create more value for everyone in the long run. For that reason, I always encourage entrepreneurs to be open about strengths and weaknesses. I feel that, at J&J;, we have the resources, expertise and, most importantly, desire, to work with startups to draw a path to success and help with execution. Those of us here, in the Boston ecosystem, appreciate the many opportunities for education, networking and training, that are offered by J&J; and JLABS without any strings attached, in the spirit of this approach and the J&J; Credo.


As you look to the future of innovation, what are the big trends you expect will significantly impact healthcare in the next five years?

The big three I am very hopeful about are data-driven monitoring, early detection and early intervention. We will see progress on these fronts emerge from FDA-regulated innovations as well as from the consumer side, as individuals continue to take greater ownership of their health. What started with Fitbits is evolving into sophisticated, data-driven approaches and AI-based analytics that can identify potential health risks early and deploy better solutions to keep people healthy. Johnson & Johnson is in an ideal position to harness this trend through its combination of pharma, medical device and consumer health businesses.

On the therapy side, new modalities such as gene editing and CAR-T are beginning to mature, giving way to medicines we couldn’t have even predicted five years ago. The shift from the blockbuster model to smaller well-defined patient populations has allowed us to take risks and gain experience with new approaches that can only be perfected by getting to the market. Ultimately, this will translate into being able to fix almost anything in the body. It’s completely mind-blowing. At the same time, new drug-development tools such as organs-on-a-chip are enabling biological research on a whole new level, which will lead to new ways to treat disease.


You are driven by a passion for ending disease. Tell us about this.

Indeed, I’m passionate about prevention, early detection and intervention. The vision of a world without disease is compelling to me on a very personal level. Many years ago, my father passed away from a cancer that later became preventable. The drug that could save him at the time was then in clinical trials and by the time it was accessible to him, he was too weak to take it. Five years after he passed, my sister-in-law contracted the same cancer. Her son was just 6 years old at the time. I consulted with colleagues at Harvard, who informed me it was a bad situation. But the same drug that my father failed to benefit from worked for her. Five years later, her cancer came back and she got another drug that worked. Today, she runs half marathons and my nephew is 14. Stories like this are why we’re here. I feel extremely privileged to contribute to the efforts to find cures or treat people with disease so they can raise their children and enjoy life for as long as possible.