Bringing game-changing healthcare technology to life
For the last 10 years, Johnson & Johnson Innovation has been on a mission to accelerate early-stage innovation aimed at advancing healthcare. As digital technology external innovation lead, Varun Ramdevan looks for the best ideas—and helps make them a reality.
With a focus on quantum computing—a rapidly emerging technology that uses the laws of quantum mechanics to solve problems too complex for standard computers—Ramdevan works with innovators who are in the early stages of building game-changing technology to help them bring their ideas to life.
The way Johnson & Johnson Innovation helps startups accelerate their ideas is by forming strategic collaborations between entrepreneurs and Johnson & Johnson’s global healthcare businesses. These collaborations focus on learning and building solutions together.
What kind of solutions? Think: technologies that may help us detect cancer years before current screenings do, groundbreaking treatments for disease and even new ways of using health data to help make medication safer, more effective and more accessible.
“With health tech companies, finding solutions is particularly impactful,” says Ramdevan. “And so pairing technology and science to advance our understanding of disease and accelerate our path to developing innovations that are safe for patients around the world becomes a special type of collaboration.”
Not surprisingly, meeting with these startups almost always lights Ramdevan up and leaves him feeling hopeful for the future.
“My job inspires me to ask, ‘What problem do I want to solve, and at what scale do I want to solve that problem?’” says Ramdevan. “Can you see how every day on the job is a great day?”
Read on to learn more about Ramdevan’s passion for his work, life-long learning and more.
What is your educational background?
This may be a shocker: I don’t have a technology or scientific background. I have a business degree but have always learned outside of the classroom by reading, watching, observing and adapting.
I have intense enthusiasm to learn and solve complex problems, and I’ve always been a bit of an entrepreneur myself. When I was 14, I created a piano school and a car detailing shop. At 17, I convinced a family friend who was starting a consulting group to give me a shot as an intern. I worked there through college, where I studied business and accounting.
And I’ve been lucky to have colleagues and friends who have been willing to teach me. I remember coworkers allowing me to read their stacks of microbiology and immunology research despite my lack of foundational education in those subjects. But I’d read as much of them as I could, even if I was absorbing nothing more than the pictures. Over time, doing this taught me to see patterns. Most importantly, I made friends through my interest in their work.
Was there someone in your life who inspired your entrepreneurial spirit?
So many people did, including my father, grandfather and uncles—plus a few strangers I met along the way.
I see entrepreneurship as a way to self-improve at scale. Each entrepreneur I engaged with gifted me stories and lessons on navigating different challenges in life, whether relational, strategic, financial or scientific.
Nothing makes me feel more alive than being part of other people’s lives as they transcend from where they think they are to where they can be.
I’ve watched entrepreneurs who thrive utilize styles of leadership, whether it’s one of quick and adaptive execution or careful, precise and watchful learning. They could bring extreme focus, yet also complex layered, empathetic thinking. I really learned from these methods. Recently, I’ve connected with a business school professor who completely shifted my understanding of what it takes to create and lead effective organizations.
I’ve had spiritually oriented teachers, too—and they can take credit for making me more aware of the untapped potential energy we all carry every day, which can be limited by our mind, emotions and stories we tell ourselves.
What has been your proudest achievement at work so far?
In 2020, I had the privilege of building and leading a digital technology team in support of the company’s Lung Cancer Initiative at Johnson & Johnson, which has recently evolved into the Interventional Oncology R&D Unit at Johnson & Johnson. I was able to look at how the company might converge its Pharmaceutical and MedTech expertise to advance innovations that aim to create more effective and personalized treatments for lung cancer with the goal of improving patient outcomes.
In a short period of time, our team helped build some innovative products, ranging from AI-enabled diagnostics to clinical informatics solutions. We operated like an entrepreneurial unit—our group helped another globally growing group set itself up for successful R&D, data science, clinical trial and business operations.
It was a gratifying journey to participate in and witness Johnson & Johnson embrace digital innovation along with medtech and biotech innovation. And to learn how to do it in tandem with my day-to-day responsibilities helped me grow my ability to work on other projects.
In 20 years I hope we’ve succeeded in imagining a world without disease, and I think this is truly something that’s within our reach.
And your most challenging day on the job?
That would be when I’ve lost control of my time management. There are so many problems to solve in such a short period of time. In one sense, my job entails trying to see the unseeable with early innovation—which can take an unpredictable amount of time.
For example, working with quantum processing has the potential to change how medicines are made, but we don’t know exactly how. There are days when I’m leaving the office wishing I had more time to read or talk to someone. Otherwise, every day feels like the best day on the job.
How do you learn and get inspiration outside of work?
I meditate. I think it’s the simplest gift we can give to ourselves. The things we absorb in our quietude are profound.
Silence is a very active part of my day. I start and end each day with silence, and now I feel more comfortable with holding my silence throughout the day.
I also try to do one thing every week that I find uncomfortable. For example, I’m not used to watching TV. I find it uncomfortable, because it’s too much sensory input for me. But I’ve been watching TV with my wife.
Another thing I try to do every day is leave time for learning. Learning happens in very nuanced and beautiful ways. Working at Johnson & Johnson, we learn to solve problems like businesspeople, but certain problems don’t require that type of perspective. For example, if your loved one is sick, you don’t look at the issue from the view of someone with a business background; you look at it with your heart. And to be able to do that, one needs to be able to learn.
Every week I try to do something that provides a different kind of learning experience for me. I recently started restoring leather shoes. I buy leather shoes made by great shoemakers around the world—but are in bad shape—and I find a way to restore them so they look brand new. I think we can all learn to live a rich life by doing different things on our own and doing them consciously.
If we were talking 20 years from now, what achievement would you be excited to tell me about?
I hope we’ve succeeded in imagining a world without disease (as our Johnson & Johnson Innovation leader, Bill Hait, would remind us), and I think this is truly something that’s within our reach. We’re getting there. We need more scientific technology advancement and most importantly, collaboration across humanity to make it work. But I think we can get to a point where we get to start thinking of disease as something that we can eradicate.
How do you start your day?
I believe that our environment makes us who we are. Both my wife and I never leave the house messy; beds are always made, cups are back in the cupboards. Even the car has to be clean. And the first thing I do when I get to the office is clean my desk. It’s my personal opinion that if we can’t get the first few steps of our day right, why would we expect to get the rest of the day right?
If you couldn’t do what you’re doing now, what would be your second choice for a career?
I would start a school, not to become a teacher, but to be an even better student. Nothing makes me feel more alive than being part of other people’s lives as they transcend from where they think they are to where they can be.
I love watching people realize that whatever it was—a relationship that held them back or a career they didn’t love or something else that’s making them feel stuck—they just needed to perceive things differently and put a different energy into achieving their dream.