Getting to know you: New leader of NJII, Johnson, wants people to know more about how it’s accelerating innovation

It’s hard to condense everything New Jersey Innovation Institute does into one easy soundbite. Michael Johnson, the organization’s new president, admits as much.

Johnson’s own activity in the industry also doesn’t lend itself to a succinct recap. Prior to stepping in as NJII’s president back in October, he made a name for himself as the co-founder and CEO of biotech research outfit Visikol. Following that Hampton company’s 2021 sale, he took on a job as chief commercial officer for Massachusetts-based MatTek Life Sciences. He also had early stints at Johnson & Johnson and NASA. …


But, if there’s a singular takeaway Johnson wants you to have of NJII, a 2014-founded New Jersey Institute of Technology corporation, it’s this: It’s accelerating innovation within the state of New Jersey.

A month into his new position, Johnson said he believes it’s a good time to get Jerseyans better acquainted with NJII and how it’s fulfilling that mission — in a way that’s as easy to digest as possible. He spoke about that and more with ROI-NJ.

ROI-NJ: To start off, could you talk more in-depth about your path in the life science sector? Also, how’d you come about learning of this opportunity at NJII and what about it intrigued you?

Michael Johnson: I come from a strong background of sciences. I earned my Ph.D. at Rutgers and was focused on environmental sciences. While doing that, I started a company. We were imaging tissues, such as biopsies, and turning them into large data sets that could be mined for useful insights. We built that company into a leading contract research business that did work with all 20 of the Top 20 pharmaceutical companies. Then we sold it to a Swedish life sciences company called BICO. From there, we had a two-year integration period in which we were integrating our business into that of our parent company as well as a sister company called MatTek, where I took the role of chief commercial officer. But, when we had sold the business, I knew after two years I wanted to transition to a new role and opportunity. The two things that were my passion areas were commercialization and science — more specifically, taking technologies and translating them into useful products and services that have a significant impact on the world. For me, the cooler the technology, the better. So, I was very focused on high-tech and cutting-edge solutions in the life sciences. When I was looking at roles for my next one after Visikol, there weren’t a lot that really spoke to me. But I heard from NJII and met some of their staff in the past. I saw it as this perfect opportunity to be part of academia and research, which I love, but also the interface of business and commercialization and helping get technology to market to help change lives. It was just kind of the perfect fit. And, while my background was in life sciences, I also wanted to get beyond that. At NJII, we’re focused on a bunch of different areas, including health care, defense and homeland security, entrepreneurship and corporate education. So, it allows me to get what I want but also to build up my repertoire in different technology fields. For all those reasons, I was really excited to dive-in head-first into the role.

ROI: Entering the role, what have you viewed as an early priority?

MJ: Most people in New Jersey don’t know what NJII is or what the purpose of it even is. They also don’t know how large it is. Just to give some facts and figures: NJII is an organization of roughly 120 people with a (profit & loss) of roughly $40 million a year. It has a very significant impact in New Jersey. But, for a bunch of reasons, we haven’t had the great press; we haven’t really had people out there talking about it. As a result, not a lot of folks have heard about us. So, one of the lowest-hanging fruits for me coming into NJII is really talking about the organization, telling its story and its purpose. And the purpose is that it’s hard to work with academia, which has this great abundance of people and resources. But getting all of that out of academia — harnessing those resources — is a challenge. So, what (former NJIT President) Joel Bloom and (NJII Founding President) Donald Sebastian did was create a 501(c)(3) corporation that was owned wholly by NJIT. They did that with the intention of having an organization that was nimble and flexible and could go after projects, contracts and work relationships that the university would have a tough time going after. It’s a beautiful hybrid entity that’s a conduit between the outside world and NJIT that’s the best of both worlds. In 10 years, we’ve generated over $330 million of revenue. We’ve also intentionally built a few for-profit corporations. We sold one of them recently, BioCentriq, for about $73 million. And we’re really in the business of helping spur innovation and upskill workers while also having a very significant impact on New Jersey’s economy.

ROI: What do you expect will go into upping NJII’s visibility?

MJ: A big piece of the rationale for our core brand recognition relative to our impact is that we do a lot of different things. We’re not a single company making a single widget. Our areas of focus are disparate. We have a lot of diversity in the industries we work in. We also have a lot of diversity in our business models. It’s an incredibly complex organization — it’s as complex an organization as one that’s 100 times its size. The brand does get diluted by all we do. There’s competing priorities, and we haven’t really focused on the messaging behind what NJII is and getting out there and telling our story. A big piece of that is just generating content around what we’re doing and the impact we’re having. There’s a lot of great stories that we’re simply not telling. Nothing too complicated will go into it, besides really diving much more into marketing and public relations than we have historically.

ROI: Outside of that, what’s in store for NJII, and what’s your vision for its growth?

MJ: Within NJII, we have four divisions: entrepreneurship and strategic partnering, health care, defense and homeland security, and professional and corporate education. Our health care division is about 80% of our revenue. Much of the work we’re doing there is supportive systems such as the (New Jersey Health Information Network), which takes all these disparate data sources and ties them together so we have all the data for a single patient in one place. Our health care division is big, but it’s growing. It’s very well-run. We’re not changing much about what we’re doing there, besides building it out and diversifying it. Two big areas for us are entrepreneurship and strategic partnering and professional and corporate education. With (the former area), the problem we’re trying to solve is if you have a really smart professor or graduate student with a great idea or a patent, how do you turn that into a product? Because the faculty typically doesn’t want to leave their job and the student probably doesn’t want to jump right into a startup or know how to run one. It’s a struggle for every university, and a core dilemma we’re trying to solve. The vision we have for doing that is intentionally working to build companies within NJII that can take that and move it forward. With, for example, the founding and sale of BioCentriq, we leveraged the back-office support within our organization, the resources and researchers with NJIT and took all those pieces needed to build companies and put them together. For us, one of the areas we’re going to get into is venture studio work, building companies using (intellectual property) from NJIT faculty and NJIT ideas and going after growing companies within NJII as a service and as a business model. It’s similar to what Aaron Price is doing with TechUnited. With professional and corporate education, there’s a real need for training, especially coming out of COVID. We’re well-positioned to pull that content together and deliver it with the help of NJIT. Those are the focus areas we’ll be expanding in the next year or two.

One of the things we might consider in the future is expanding our divisions beyond where we’re at today. We want to always align with NJIT. But there’s a lot of work going on there that we’re not well-aligned with. We don’t have a life sciences division within NJII. That’s something we’re actively considering. Is there a way to better harvest the resources from NJIT by doing that? We’re also looking at a more commercially oriented additive manufacturing division so we can leverage the work our colleagues at NJIT are doing. We’re trying to find what divisions could allow us to build on what’s going on at NJIT while also looking to go after areas that are evolving and growing rapidly that are well positioned for success.

ROI: What has it been like settling into this new role at NJII?

MJ: My colleagues have been great. At NJIT, the team has been super helpful and welcoming. I’ve had some great mentorship so far around what to do and what not to do, what needs fixing and what doesn’t. That has been nice. Before the role even started, I was on campus for one to two months every couple days — just visiting, meeting people and trying to learn as much as possible. In these first 90 days, a big piece of what I’m trying to do is meet as much staff and faculty as I can to learn more about the organization and what we can do. We’re in a really unique inflection point because we do have proceeds coming in from the BioCentriq sale that we can allocate toward NJII’s growth, toward building for a future and really growing over the coming years into more divisions, more focus areas, more diverse revenue. So far, I’m enjoying this. Academia is certainly different from the business world. But I love working with smart colleagues and really just highly intellectually stimulating work.