We recently sat down with Elena Fernandez-Kleinlein to get to know her better. Earlier this summer Elena took on the position of interim head for JLABS EMEA, alongside her ongoing role as Consumer Scientific Innovation Lead at the London-based Johnson & Johnson Innovation Center. Busy woman! But that fits in with her vision: Elena has a true passion for innovation and is looking forward to working with both teams to foster connections with the European life science innovation community.
Q: Tell us a bit about your background Elena. How did you come to work for Johnson & Johnson?
I was born in a small town in Southern Spain. My father was Spanish and my mother German. My upbringing was bi-lingual and truly pan-European, something that is also reflected in my last name.
My background is in food chemistry, which I studied in beautiful Munich. After completing my studies there, I went to work for the Product Development Team at Kraft Foods International. They had a very big R&D center in Munich, and I was delighted by the international nature of the company.
In 1994 I joined Johnson & Johnson and switched focus from nutritional product development to formulated products such as cosmetics. Several years later I moved to Women’s Health and the Personal Care Division. That was a fascinating time, because it was a shift away from traditional wet chemistry into the engineering world. It was outside my comfort zone and I learned a lot.
Q: What’s your experience with Johnson & Johnson been like so far?
In 2002 I had the opportunity to assume a regional role in the Wound Care Franchise. 2002-2009 was an interesting time. Johnson & Johnson underwent some significant changes, particularly with the 2006 acquisition of Pfizer Consumer Healthcare, and the organization was gradually integrated into Johnson & Johnson Consumer.
Personally, I had two kids in that period and in 2009 moved to the US with my young family to take on a global R&D role within the Topical Healthcare R&D team. My primary responsibility was to develop the product and innovation pipeline for our Topical Healthcare business, which included iconic brands such as BAND-AID and Neosporin.
Q: You’ve had quite the global journey! How did you become involved with the Innovation Center and JLABS?
When I heard that Johnson & Johnson Chief Scientific Officer Paul Stoffels was announcing the newly created concept of the Innovation Centers to be closer to the entrepreneurial and innovator communities, I said to myself “I have to be involved!” So, in July 2013, I moved with my family from New Jersey to London.
As the newly appointed Consumer Scientific Lead at the London Innovation Center, it has been fascinating to be part of the journey from the start. It was a great challenge and opportunity, because the Consumer role was not defined and I was able to shape things to what Johnson & Johnson needed.
I have since seen myself as a change agent in the organization, bringing disruptive innovations and new business models from the outside into the businesses while adding long-term value to the organization. It’s not been an easy ride, but changing the culture and mindset does not happen overnight.
Q: So, you’re all for innovation and fresh perspectives?
Absolutely! I had a real revelation, back in 2013, at a meeting with a 24-year-old graduate from Oxford university. She was pitching her fetal health monitor idea to me and I had the overwhelming thought of: “what other amazing innovations have I been missing?” When you are sitting in the big corporate R&D center, you can get out of touch with the world around you.
The Innovation Centers have created doors to the outside world to bring in new start-ups, entrepreneurs and innovators with bright ideas. We embrace their thinking, their mindset and strive to create connectivity with the internal world of Johnson & Johnson. This is what I’ve been doing for the past 6 years: scouting technologies and creating new disruptive and transformative business models, to bring value to both the internal and external organizations.
Q: Is this what you’ll keep pushing for at JLABS? Bringing new innovations into Johnson & Johnson?
JLABS is a great vehicle for us to bring disruptive and transformational innovation across Johnson & Johnson. The position in JLABS will enable me to look broader than just Consumer; I can now investigate opportunities in the pharmaceutical, vision care and medical devices sectors, for example.
On the one hand, I get excited about nurturing the local and regional ecosystems and connecting entrepreneurs with the right people because I think that’s a fascinating role to play in industry. On the other hand, we are creating value for our customers: for our patients and consumers. That is ultimately what brings me to work every day and what I’m passionate about: creating something that will help people.
Q: What are you most excited for at JLABS?
It’s a privilege to be leading Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS in Europe. We are still at the beginning, and it’s almost like running your own business and portfolio, and that is something that I always wanted to do. I come from a family of entrepreneurs and it’s always been fascinating to me to see my grandfather and my dad do it. Now it’s my turn!
Working with start-ups is so enriching and a great incentive for me: I love them! It’s all about being there for them when they are going through their ups and downs. Supporting them through our no-strings attached approach [i], de-risking their technologies as much as possible, seeing how we can add value and perhaps becoming their partner-of-choice.
Longer term it will be crucial to increase the connectivity between JLABS and all the Innovation Centers but in particular with the London Innovation Center. I think we can leverage great expertise on both sides and do great things together.
[i] Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS doesn’t see any confidential information, doesn’t own any IP and has no first rights to any of the companies using space in JLABS. This doesn’t mean a company cannot do a deal with Johnson & Johnson. It just means both parties need to be interested in order to go down that path. There is no guarantee.