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Innovators: How Diversifying Your Network Can Help Ignite Ideas



Launching an innovative product or technology takes more than a good idea, and there are many actions startups can take to strengthen their offering and overall chance of success as they develop the latest innovations to bolster health security, including battling COVID-19. Over the last year, the global scientific community has proven critical to our collective ability to combat the pandemic, and BLUE KNIGHT™ offers a new way to build the kinds of partnerships needed to advance potentially life-saving technology during public health emergencies.

Blue Knight is a joint initiative between Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) that aims to forge a path to a more prepared and protected future by providing support for strategically aligned start-up companies and elevating important topics through expert programming.

Investing in Your Success: Tips for a Strong Pitch

At the close of 2020, we joined the culminating session of the Blue Knight Symposium to discuss strategies for investing in and nurturing early-stage innovation to improve health security. At the Symposium, we witnessed first-hand that when worldwide experts come together, we are able to probe deeper to address challenges and identify priorities to strengthen preparedness and health security.

We were joined by internationally recognized innovation leader, Geoffrey Ling, M.D., Ph.D., for a forthright dialogue that provided early-stage innovators with tips for overcoming barriers. The panel was led by entrepreneur Stephanie Culler, Ph.D., Co-Founder and CEO of Persephone Biosciences, a Blue Knight company. Here are key takeaways from the discussion.

To fuel early-stage, high-risk innovations, we look for ideas with the potential to cross the ultimate finish line: meeting the unmet needs of patients. By offering transparent advice, we hope to help those on the frontlines of innovation develop stronger proposals, foster connections, and access the support needed to make their next big move.

  1. Establish your vision. Having a cutting-edge idea and deep understanding of its scientific basis is key, but it can be even more critical to clearly articulate the transformational impact this science could have on public health. We see a lot of solutions that are lacking a compelling problem. A flashy technology is not attractive if there is no potential application – to have a disruptive idea, you need to be solving an existing or anticipated challenge. What problem is your solution solving? Does your innovation have the potential to improve access and efficiency of diagnoses? Is it a cost-effective solution that may help address disparities in healthcare access? Not all innovative technologies need to be transformational or revolutionary, but they do need to be impactful in addressing a public health need. You must be visionary in the early stages of your company by considering the potential value your innovation brings to the market and articulating that upfront in your pitch.
  1. Diversify your customers. When considering markets for science and technology aiming to address global health threats, identifying a ”dual utility” or multi-use value application is a sustainable and adept approach. Dual utility or multi-use products and technologies are developed to have both commercial and biodefense applications, thus enhancing our ability to respond effectively to a broad array of threats and in emergency situations. Public and private partners are eager to engage with promising ideas that have dual-use potential, because – as Dr. Ling of On Demand Pharmaceuticals explained during the panel – “Dual use products are important from many aspects…selling to the government is a limited market; you have to expand your product’s market potential, so finding an application that the civilian sector would also embrace gives you access to much more capital… and therefore the ability to make further improvements and investments in your product.”
  1. Diversify your partners. A multi-use model also opens the door to a more diverse group of prospective partners, thus expanding the advice and mentorship you may have access to. Potential partners are always looking to mitigate risk when supporting novel ideas, and multi-use applications create a chance to strategically align and share risk across multiple invested stakeholders. By bringing together different stakeholders, all parties involved will expand their knowledge networks.
  1. Strengthen your team. For potential investors, a remarkable team may be as important as a compelling idea. When evaluating a proposal, we aren’t just looking at your science, but also at your management team, founders and external networks of support. A disruptive idea often comes from a strong scientific team, but lack of know-how on the strategy and management side can be a fatal flaw. Getting through the business, legal, and regulatory hurdles that entrepreneurs face in order to have their products reach patients and consumers takes the wisdom of an experienced team. It’s important to be proactive about forging strong and diverse relationships– especially with mentors who have extensive experience accelerating innovation and offer a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives. Veteran innovators can help remove the guesswork and help startups remain forward-thinking when advancing their ideas.
  1. Diversify your funding. It’s also important to remain open to various types of funding. There can be a tension around the balance of dilutive and non-dilutive funding. Non-dilutive funding is often extremely attractive to a startup because itwon’treduce shareholder value for founders and existing investors – and it can potentially lead to more rapid validation. Though, the amount of time it takes to secure non-dilutive funding and the constraints and reporting required are downsides to consider. From a venture perspective, you should always look more holistically at business models and funding options before identifying the best path forward.

If you are interested in taking a deeper dive into any or all of these concepts, check out the full remarks in our on-demand presentation.

Connecting to Catalyze: An Opportunity to Access an Expert Network

At the end of the day, even with the right science, the right target market, and the right funding, the path to bringing an idea to market is prone to detours and roadblocks. Success requires creativity and unwavering passion. We believe that entrepreneurs who build a network of diverse stakeholders – all passionate about their success and who will be there to help pivot and persevere – may have a stronger chance at getting their solutions to patients.

By finding partners and mentors in the early stages, entrepreneurs can gain the expertise and insights to look ahead to anticipate and mitigate risks.

If you’re working on the frontlines of innovation with the aim to improve health security, we want to hear from you. Our Blue Knight collaboration was formed with a keen interest in sourcing innovation that has applications for today, while improving our readiness to combat unknown threats of tomorrow. United, we are able to provide promising startups with the robust, multi-specialty mentorship and resources from both the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies and BARDA networks.

It’s never too early to start making connections and building the foundation and support that may help propel your science or technology forward. If you’re ready to progress your compelling idea for improving preparedness and response to health threats, visit the Blue Knight website to get connected or apply to join.

About the Authors

  • Christopher Houchens, Ph.D., Director, Division of CBRN Medical Countermeasures, Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • Marian Nakada, Ph.D., Vice President, Venture Investments, Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JJDC, Inc.



The content covered in this blog is intended for educational and informational purposes only and may contain opinions by persons and organizations not affiliated with Johnson & Johnson Innovation LLC, and/or its parent or affiliated companies (hereinafter collectively referred to as “JJI”). JJI makes no representations, warranties, express or implied, as to the content, the views, advice, or the information presented. This content is not intended to influence the use, sale, recommendation, or promotion of any products or services of JJI, Johnson & Johnson or its affiliates.