Johnson & Johnson Exec on COVID-19 and Inequality

By Lilly Milman, Scott Kirsner |  August 17, 2020

As a company on the forefront of the global COVID-19 pandemic response, Johnson & Johnson is counting on its innovation teams to work quickly in the face of big questions and unprecedented obstacles.  

“Johnson & Johnson is one of the two companies that declared that the COVID-19 vaccine is going to be made available on a not-for-profit basis,” says Michal Preminger, Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, East North America. 

Michal Preminger, Johnson & Johnson

The company is currently tackling two epidemics, she says: COVID-19, and the systemic racism prevalent in the United States. Despite the challenges presented by social distancing restrictions and the severity of the virus, Preminger says the team is making thoughtful progress on both fronts and learning every step of the way — whether that means adjusting to a remote workspace, or having difficult and personal conversations about equity.  

“We are having internal conversations that we have never dared to have before,” she says. “We are talking about people’s experiences, about what people actually feel. I’m glad to say that we do have a diverse team…  We are fortunate to have team members that are driving a very sincere effort and discussion.”

In a recent conversation, Preminger explained how the innovation teams at Johnson & Johnson are working to find solutions for both COVID-19 and racism, both internally and outside of the organization. This interview with Preminger is a part of InnoLead’s most recent research report, “CxOs & Innovation.” For more data and interviews on how the role of innovation leaders is changing during COVID-19, visit the main report page

How has your group been responding to COVID?

When the COVID-19 crisis started, we defined for our team [several] new areas of focus. One was super-acceleration of COVID-related innovation. We support [a COVID-19 vaccine development project in collaboration with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston]. And we’ve deployed a lot of effort to help screen through opportunities and ideas presented to us related to all areas of COVID — not just vaccines, but diagnostics and other areas.

We searched for opportunities to [apply] actual physical capabilities within J&J to expedite and help with innovation. One was with our 3D printing center, when ventilators were a top priority. We reached out to every group developing ventilators and accessories to offer our capabilities in quick design and manufacturing. Prisma Health in Florida had invented a ventilator splitter, but didn’t have the resources to manufacture it. So we made splitters based on their blueprint, and took it through [the] regulatory and quality [process.] It was an amazing experience. 

The additional pillar is what I call “learning from COVID.” We committed to ourselves that we’re going to leverage the situation for what it can teach us at the team-level, at the company-level, at the ecosystem-level, and at the humanity-level…to use COVID as an inspiration to develop new approaches that are now validated and proven. 

We are having internal conversations that we have never dared to have before. We are talking about…what people actually feel.

What is a key lesson you have learned during the past few months? 

One of the things that we noticed very quickly is that we used to do a lot of in-person programming and in-person engagement, and there was always the compromise of who is present. We could never have all of the people that needed to be there actually present… We realized that by moving into virtual programming, it’s quite amazing how we can be more complete in every respect. 

All of our projects involve so many people around the world. We used to have a celebration at our office in Kendall. Some people would be on the phone, some people all the way over in China would be asleep. Now, we do those celebrations by Zoom and everyone can be there and join the celebrations. It actually really helps us with inclusion and with the completeness of what we do. … There’s a lot more opportunity to bring people across geographies into dialogues… 

One big way that the mandates of innovation teams are changing is that they are thinking about diversity and inclusion more. How has the mission for a diverse workplace been reflected in your innovation team? 

We’ve always tried to promote diversity causes through sponsorships, volunteering, and mentoring. This is something that has always been part of Johnson & Johnson, and J&J Innovation. 

We have been determined, since basically the escalation following George Floyd’s death, to also invest much more in areas that are within our core proposition… [We are working on] developing more power behind diversification of clinical trials… I’ve asked the team to landscape more and look more for opportunities in innovation-related conditions that are more prevalent in the black community… 

We’ve also been considering how we pivot on things that we were doing before that have now become more difficult. For example, our mentoring programs require face-to-face interaction, or we rely on networking events or physical convocation. We have started shifting to new paradigms that are more virtual, and we are developing those as we speak. 

We are partnering with some of the local colleges with this idea of creating opportunities to coach about networking and to coach about creating…and networking for yourself. We are trying to empower with the fishing rod and not the fish, and this is something that goes earlier than this [public reckoning of racism in America]. It’s meant to…generate more interest in moving into our industry and just create opportunities for people early in their careers.