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Finding That Delicate Balance to Foster Innovation: An Interview with Carolyne Zimmermannn


The pharmaceutical industry has come to universal agreement: in-house drug discovery can only go so far in producing the dynamic pipelines needed to solve today’s complex health problems. But as for what type of approach is best for capturing the most promising ideas from the global scientific community and nurturing those ideas to fruition, pharma leaders differ greatly.

“What I see in Johnson & Johnson Innovation is a much more advanced and cohesive way of thinking about how big pharma works with this external innovation ecosystem,” says Carolyne Zimmermann, the new senior director of transactions for Johnson & Johnson Innovation.    
Zimmermann, based out of the California Innovation Center in Menlo Park, joins Johnson & Johnson Innovation from Novartis, where she held various roles in business development and venture capital over more than 13 years. Most recently, she served as general partner at dRx Capital, a joint investment company between Novartis and Qualcomm Ventures that focused on forging deals in the digital health space. Before that, she led the global business development and licensing efforts for Novartis’ cardiovascular and metabolic franchise.  
At Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Zimmermann specializes in determining what type of deal structure—seed funding, acquisitions, licensing, options or some combination of those—makes the most sense for potential partners who have demonstrated promising early stage science. 
“My passion is finding a way for companies to work together and bring to bear their core competencies to create a whole new solution,” says Zimmermann, who studied engineering sciences at University of California, San Diego, and earned a M.B.A. from Columbia University.  “It’s all about understanding the delicate balance that fosters innovation.”
We sat down with Zimmerman to learn more about her business approach and her interests outside of work.
Tell us about a highlight of your career, prior to joining Johnson & Johnson Innovation.
It had to be the time I put myself out of a job. For several years, I was leading alliance management for a global respiratory franchise. My job was to manage a major collaboration for another large pharmaceutical company—a collaboration with two late stage programs. However, it became clear over time that the two companies had diametrically opposed risk appetites and no strategic alignment. The solution became crystal clear to me. We had to divorce, even though it meant I would be out of a job. (Zimmermann took a new position leading alliance management for a different global franchise based in Basel, Switzerland.) Despite the personal ramifications, the experience was extremely valuable; it gave me a greater understanding of what works in a collaboration and how important strategic alignment is. I learned how to persist and I saw the importance of the various stakeholders and touch points. You have to be like a politician with really strong tenacity, but you also have to know when a collaboration no longer makes business sense. It was a lesson in what it takes to make a collaboration across organizations work.
How do you approach a complex collaboration—especially when working with multiple companies that each have many stakeholders? 
I’m not really one for proverbs, but I was once negotiating a multiparty deal involving the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and I saw a quote on the wall of their lobby. It captured my heart. It’s an African saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This is so true in deal-making and business in general. Nobody does a deal alone. Any good dealmaker understands the interplay of all different functions and stakeholders. Dealmakers may be the catalysts, the ones who bring the right people together at the right time, but it is never “their” deal. For me, this idea of going far together is what successful business collaborations and innovation is all about.
What areas of innovation are you most excited about, in terms of their potential to bring about real change to healthcare? 
I’m really excited about the progress that’s being made in oncology and immuno-oncology, not only because of what it means for patients with cancer, but because I believe these advancements will make their way to other diseases with great need. There is great promise with liquid biopsies and a host of genomic technologies, including CRISPR/Cas9 for genome editing. Viral vectors hold the potential of bringing functional cures to many diseases. I’m a business person more than a scientist, but I love that science continues to evolve and build out in these exciting areas.

How do you enjoy spending your free time? 
My household went vegan two years ago, so my husband and I enjoy exploring the San Francisco area for new restaurants and ingredients. The Bay Area has many great markets and produce, as well as some interesting and inventive restaurants. It’s been quite a journey making such a drastic change to diet, and it’s given me the reason to try out new recipes. I make a fabulous vegan moussaka, which is best served with a lovely red zinfandel and a green side salad.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I grew up in Belgium and Malaysia before coming to Los Altos, California, in my teens. My father was in the semiconductor industry, and every time his company opened a new plant, we went. As a kid, that meant adjusting to new schools, new foods, new lifestyles. My parents were U.S. immigrants from Switzerland and were fluent in French, so Belgium wasn’t much of a change for us. But Kuala Lumpur was quite different and gave me a greater appreciation of how the U.S. fits into the world. Even though I’m not a California native, it’s always been a goal of mine to return here. What I love about the Bay Area, beyond the weather, are the open attitudes and lively business climate. My husband and I have settled into Portola Valley and are enjoying it very much.