Cris De Luca cheerily admits he had little idea of what to expect when he accepted an invitation to serve as a panelist at Digital Health Pop-Up, an off-site get-together convened by Ogilvy and Humble Ventures at this year’s SXSW. He assumed he and his fellow presenters — innovation/investment execs from Pfizer and Merck — would banter easily with one another prior to fielding a handful of audience questions, much like every other klatch he’d attended during his time at the event.
He assumed wrong. Almost immediately, members of the audience seized the steering wheel, pressing the panelists for information about the underlying mechanics of innovation at organizations such as Johnson & Johnson Innovation.
De Luca was unfazed. “That’s kind of what you want, isn’t it?” he asks.
Over the next 50 minutes, De Luca conveyed a wealth of information about innovation within the expanse of J&J. He shared coveted details about operational dynamics, internal metrics and pitch-framing techniques.
“What I told them, basically, was they need to make me as equipped as possible to answer the questions I’ll be asked when I take their ideas to stakeholders in my company,” De Luca says. “There are subtleties that you get only when you have direct experience in our world. Like the way you present yourself — it has to be more, ‘This is how I see my opportunity in your hands,’ and less, ‘This is my opportunity. What would you do with it at J&J?’”
De Luca has spent the bulk of his professional life framing innovation and investment opportunities for a range of audiences. He spent the first seven years of his career at Novartis, rising to a role in which he attempted to leverage collaborative technology to hasten the pace of drug discovery. After establishing his own startup (“kind of by accident”), De Luca found himself in a role he’d soon master: playing matchmaker between mammoth organizations (General Electric, Shell) and their respective startup communities.
“Large corporations and corporate venture groups wanted us to help curate portfolios of interesting, transformational, early-stage companies,” he explains. “The idea was to help small companies get big and, more importantly, help big companies get small.”
When J&J opened a new office a few blocks from his Boston base, De Luca pitched its leader on hiring his company to help fill the organizational pipeline. The leader, in turn, pitched De Luca on doing so as a J&J employee. He signed up without hesitation.
His first challenge was to help J&J Innovation imbue startup thinking across the entire organization, an assignment complicated by the company’s lowly reputation among the health-tech set.
De Luca and his team set about transforming the culture around innovation, a task facilitated philosophically, if not logistically, by their immediate surroundings. “We were bolting tables together. Our internet connection was routed through Asia for some reason,” he recalls.
But as deals started to come together, De Luca’s group meshed quickly — and began to generate internal buzz. “The rule was that anytime a deal got done, we dropped everything and had a toast,” he says. The message delivered via each celebration: that a startup mentality could thrive in what was thought to be an exceedingly corporate environment.
“We had to show we were an actual, natural business unit, not just these weird troublemakers working away in the corner,” De Luca says with a laugh.
Six years later, J&J Innovation has a portfolio of more than 400 deals and counts hundreds more in incubation. “I feel like we’re a partner of choice. We’ve defeated that reputation,” De Luca says.
With that dragon slayed, De Luca is turning his attention to cross-sector opportunities, especially in the early treatment of conditions such as lung cancer.
“The idea is to surround people with these new kinds of tools and information and detection systems and diagnostics,” he explains. “If you’re able to work with a patient in that early-detection phase, it opens up a world of cure options that ordinarily wouldn’t be available.”