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New Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation lends advice to budding startups

Knighted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2016 for his services and research in cancer and now Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, EMEA, Sir Harpal Kumar has had an expansive and rich career largely focused on improving healthcare outcomes through innovation. His past work has even helped solidify the statement that by 2034, three in four people will survive their cancer for at least 10 years.

Sir Harpal KumarCurrently, he oversees a portfolio of co-investments and collaborations across the region and works to grow the Innovation Center’s networks within the EMEA innovation community—which includes working to building relationships with academia, venture capital, entrepreneurs, NGOs, and governmental organizations.

[Join Sir Harpal Kumar at BIO-Europe in Copenhagen on November 5 for the Opening Plenary Discussion “Europe: The global innovation trailblazer”.]

With the enormous amount of high-quality innovations developing in Europe and all across the world, Harpal is eager to bring J&J’s resources to them quickly and efficiently. The EMEA Innovation Centre has forged more than 140 partnerships in the region over the last five years, across consumer, pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

“One of the things we’re trying to do at J&J is to present opportunities for new models of collaboration that bring people together who are otherwise in different worlds. We can then address some really complex problems. These people can include academics, entrepreneurs, government and it's about finding the best ways of bringing those different parties together to address the challenges we face and change the way we think about healthcare and the delivery of healthcare.”

J&J is also working on new and innovative areas like AI and microbiome that could help tackle society’s most pressing health challenges and change the trajectory of human health.

“To achieve breakthroughs you have to challenge paradigms. Innovations typically come from people who pose questions that others don't ask, or persist in the face of alternative dogma. And that's what risk is all about. We had a great example of this recently with the Nobel Prize going to Jim Allison for his work on immunotherapy. This is someone who's been working for 40 years in the field, someone who decided that this was worth pursuing—and that is what I mean by taking risks. He's challenged paradigms, asked different questions and persisted in asking those questions and that’s often where you see the real innovation that comes at the intersection of different disciplines.”

When it comes to collaboration with different stakeholders to develop a drug efficiently, Harpal emphasizes focusing on asking whether it’s fulfilling unmet needs of the present or the future.

“It's important for entrepreneurs to think about where and how their ideas are going to develop into products that can be fitted into the market, and how they will impact the patient and the healthcare system in such a way that the system might move forward.”

Despite the high risks involved with biotech companies, Harpal says there’s no clear-cut answer for how startups can succeed, but having a clear vision, persistence, determination and a little bit of luck all can play a large part.

“They need to be able to navigate the ups and downs and need to know when to turn left or right when things inevitably don't go the way they expect. They also need to fundamentally understand what their innovation is going to deliver in terms of making a real difference, and be persistent and determined to really deliver on that promise. That's where I say an organization of the scale and capability of J&J can really help because there is the expertise here to really understand how innovations can best be delivered to patients and the public at large.”

Sir Harpal Kumar will be speaking at BIO-Europe in Copenhagen on November 5 for the Opening Plenary Discussion “Europe: The global innovation trailblazer”. The panel will discuss Europe’s key position in the global innovation ecosystem and explore strategies to ensure that European research will be successful in an international marketplace.

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