Kris Sterkens, Johnson & Johnson Foundation (Scotland): “We’re supporting the power of local ideas to create real, sustainable change.”

Words: Florence Robson

We spoke with Kris Sterkens, Chairman, Janssen EMEA, and Chair, the Johnson & Johnson Foundation (Scotland), about the vital role impact investment can play in providing quality healthcare for all and why a health-worker-first approach is a key to building resilient health systems now and in the future.

How would you summarise Johnson & Johnson’s overarching approach to creating a more equitable healthcare system?

Guided by Our Credo, Johnson & Johnson has always sought to deploy a full and unique range of tools to deliver social impact, from grantmaking to social enterprise and even in many cases our core business. Our philanthropic approach delivered through the Johnson & Johnson Foundation of course utilises funding, but we also apply our extensive expertise on the ground around the world, and a highly active employee engagement programme. Most recently, we created the Johnson & Johnson Centre for Health Worker Innovation (CHWI); our aim with CHWI is to formalise the cross-enterprise efforts of our Corporate, Pharmaceutical, Consumer and Medical Devices teams to test, evolve, and scale the best ideas by and for the health workforce, wherever those ideas may originate. CHWI is tasked with guiding a $250 million, 10-year commitment to support one million nurses, midwives and community health workers reaching 100 million people by 2030. Most recently, our Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies and Foundation extended this commitment with an additional $50 million commitment to support frontline health workers battling COVID-19. 

Why did J&J decide to pursue a corporate venture capital approach by creating J&J Impact Ventures, rather than choosing a purely philanthropic approach?

Innovative finance is a terrific example of our comprehensive approach to improving health for humanity. As impact investing has grown but lagged within health care specifically, our experts engaged and evaluated the promise and fit of this new tool. Our team became ever more enthusiastic about the potential impact investing offers; unlike traditional grants, impact investing brings capital and expertise to promising social businesses so that as their business grows, so does their impact.

Johnson & Johnson Impact Ventures was established as a result of this work. Through it we have been able to engage with remarkable entrepreneurs to explore how new types of capital could scale both their social businesses and their impact in communities around the world. Our investments emphasise a tech-forward approach to enhance health worker’s abilities to deliver on the frontline, especially in communities where there is a severe shortage of health workers and the existing health workforce is over-burdened. This perfectly reinforces how we at the Foundation have approached social innovation and partnership from the start – supporting the power of local ideas to create real, sustainable change.

Why does J&J take a health worker-first approach when choosing partner organisations?

We fundamentally believe that good health for all is possible, and Johnson & Johnson was one of the first companies to step forward in 2015 with a robust commitment to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. As a healthcare company, we recognise our unique role and responsibility to deliver, and that starts with a focus on people – patients and the health workers who serve them. When we’re considering partners, we search for those who share our commitment to putting the needs of communities first and to fostering co-ownership with communities. The next logical question is: who understands a community’s health best? And the answer for so many is the nurse, midwife or community health worker who is the connection to formal health systems.

Imagine if we could support each health worker with the tools, education, leadership and resilience training needed and deserved to deliver quality care? Through that one person, an entire community can thrive; through an empowered health workforce, we can achieve equitable health systems. Our partners share this insight and commitment, and we are proud to co-design and collaborate with them.

How has J&J Impact Ventures worked to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and meet urgent needs?

Johnson & Johnson Impact Ventures’ investments focus on improving access and delivery of quality and affordable care. Given the WHO estimate that by 2030, the world will face an 18 million shortfall in health workers, and the reality that health workers represent the frontline against COVID-19, our network of social entrepreneurs were uniquely positioned to help. Drawing on just one example, our partner in the UK, ‘Patient Knows Best’, has built a technology platform that brings together patient data from health and social care providers as well as a patient’s own data into one secure, patient-driven personal health record. This digital platform has changed the way NHS workers can connect with their patients during COVID-19 by providing an alternative to face-to-face appointments across a range of specialties.

The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated disparities in healthcare provision and quality across different markets; does this impact how you choose partner organisations?

Reducing disparities in care is a core objective of both the Johnson & Johnson Foundation and Johnson & Johnson Impact Ventures. 400 million people worldwide lack access to any care whatsoever and billions more deserve higher quality care. An increasing number of better supported health workers are essential to addressing these unacceptable gaps in pursuit of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 3. In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has confirmed and given an added urgency to our approach, rather than change it.

That being said, I would use this opportunity to highlight our support for digital health platforms and other AI-enabled technologies, which are receiving increased attention and which we have long believed hold tremendous promise in accelerating and transforming healthcare services in resource-deficient settings. COVID-19 has only strengthened our resolve to support entrepreneurs who seek to make access and delivery of quality, affordable care a reality.

What’s led to your investment in many East African social entrepreneurs and healthcare workers?

We have been guided by both a core value and a healthy dose of pragmatism. We believe that “health innovation” should not only call to mind Silicon Valley or Shanghai. COVID-19 has made it very clear that innovative access to health is needed in every community, and the people with the knowhow to deliver those innovations are local. There is a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem in East Africa, centralised in Nairobi; combined with Johnson & Johnson’s roots in Africa and strong partnership base, we focused our first portfolio approach in Kenya and have already expanded to both mature and emerging markets in other hubs across South America, Europe and Southeast Asia. 

Can you give examples of some of the on-the-ground entrepreneurs that J&J has supported?

One of our partners is ‘TNH Health’, an AI-enabled telehealth platform that monitors health information and builds resiliency for health workers and systems in Brazil. TNH Health’s platform, Vitalk, is a mobile phone app that provides highly-personalised, interactive text messaging to pregnant women and new mothers, allowing healthcare providers and decision-makers to track development milestones and link women to care.

As COVID-19 spreads across Brazil, they’ve updated Vitalk to help patients get access to treatment and provide case surveillance via chatbots, while also providing special resources to help reduce the higher rates of stress experienced by pregnant women. This use of AI and telehealth is quite exciting, and Johnson & Johnson Impact Ventures is supporting a hyper-local effort with a clear impact-goal to demonstrate how this kind of technology can thrive in a low-resource setting. 

From J&J’s perspective, what are the major global healthcare challenges that social entrepreneurs can help address, particularly given impact of COVID?

I started my career with Janssen more than 30 years ago, and in that time, I feel tremendously proud of the gains we’ve made against some of the toughest diseases and health challenges. Now, as the Managing Director of the very same campus where I started, and serving as the Chair of our EMEA business, my belief in my colleagues and our partners has never been stronger.

With our scale, talent, and determination, along with our partners, we are modelling a straightforward, integrated, and comprehensive approach to secure and advance global health.  This is transformational innovation informed by those at the frontlines of care and available and accessible to the people and communities who need it most. Our response to COVID-19 exemplifies this approach and stands on the shoulders of our efforts in Ebola, HIV and more.

We must work on both frontlines – the lab and the clinic – to face down challenges, and entrepreneurs are vital partners across all of our efforts.

As we work to build back better post-COVID, what role does J&J Impact Ventures hope to play?

Our entrepreneur partners are helping governments and healthcare leaders respond to this pandemic experience, which will change how we deliver care for the long haul, including prioritising access and the health workers core to expanding quality care for all. We believe that impact investing has a significant role to play in helping to drive the innovation needed, and at Johnson & Johnson we want to raise our voice to help bring in more of the active, engaged, double-bottom-line capital that’s so vital.

Impact investing as a field has an estimated market size of $228B, yet the Global Impact Investing Network estimates only six percent of those investments are in health. Just think of the double impact possible if we see this segment of the social finance community grow. We hope more investors will join us; we know we cannot solve any challenge alone, but we have confidence that, with new and long-time partners – innovators, investors, and health workers alike – we can realise a healthier future.

Learn more about the Johnson & Johnson Center for Health Worker Innovation here.