Johnson & Johnson has debuted its Health Equity Innovation Challenge, a program focused on harnessing entrepreneurial energy and know-how to address health disparities. It arrives amid the industry’s ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion reckoning, which itself was prompted by the killing of George Floyd and the spotlight shone on health inequities by the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

While the program takes a cue from an existing J&J initiative – the Africa Innovation Challenge, which aims to support entrepreneurship around solving health problems in Africa – the latest iteration will focus on the U.S. In particular, it will focus on six cities that were hard-hit during the pandemic and continue to struggle with health equity-related concerns: Chicago, New York City, Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

“We realized that systemic racism in the U.S. is a public health issue,” said Seema Kumar, global head of J&J’s office of innovation, public health and scientific engagement. “The health inequalities we see can be solved through innovation, but that innovation doesn’t always come from a big company like J&J. Communities of color that are living, breathing and experiencing these inequities know what they are and why they are happening, and perhaps even have great ideas for how to solve them.”

Kumar identified four goals for the Innovation Challenge: preventing and treating illnesses, advancing equitable access to care, boosting diversity in science and creating trust in community-based healthcare.

Businesses and individuals from predominantly Black and Hispanic communities can send in applications for their ideas. The winners will be chosen by an independent panel of judges, composed of community leaders, from each city. J&J will award them with access to resources, expertise, education, mentorship and capital.

“We’re hoping that we will see people with an idea and then we’ll help them patent and market the idea, then get an application to the FDA,” Kumar said.

While the Innovation Challenge stands as an example of how private companies can attempt to tackle health disparities the broader healthcare ecosystem may be failing to address, Kumar believes widespread change demands input from both the public and private sectors.

“No one company or one type of organization can solve a grand challenge alone,” she explaines. “You need the public sector to be engaged, you need civil society to be engaged and you want communities of color to be empowered and engaged. What the private sector can do is bring the discipline and the focus of how you run a business and how you get things done to the table.”