Innovation Pathways: Austin Deng Works at a ‘Startup’ in a Large Company

Austin Deng

To help illustrate where the pursuit of innovation management can lead, our Innovation Pathways series asks our current students, recent graduates, and established alumni to describe their journeys. This Q&A features Austin Deng (WG’19).

Deng is a product manager at Johnson & Johnson focused on innovation in consumer health and wellness. He is a veteran of the consumer health care industry, with extensive expertise in physical and digital product design and development, operations, regulatory strategy, and upstream innovation for OTC and medical device products.

What kind of opportunities to innovate do you find in your current job?

I work in an innovation group at Johnson & Johnson, where I’m part of an internal startup model working to disrupt the consumer health and wellness space. At my company, we’ve traditionally been focused on consumer packaged goods (CPG) for personal care, but with how technology has been disrupting every major industry, I’ve been part of initiatives at J&J to identify white spaces within connected healthcare, sensors/wearables, and digital health. Within this “startup,” I essentially get to act like an entrepreneur within a large corporation, and it’s really allowed me to wear many hats across every discipline. For instance, I’ve been able to shape not only the product innovation pipeline, but I’ve also explored new business models for bringing those products to market and agile processes for navigating the product development process and the regulatory strategy.

What did you take away from the Collaborative Innovation Program (CIP) experience and your work with the Mack Institute that was directly applicable in your current role?

My CIP experiences allowed me to get a glimpse into industries that were very different from my own and to see the ways different companies approached innovation. What I found was a common theme of industries being disrupted by digital and trying to build and shape their digital strategies in response. In particular, I gained useful experience related to digital consumer testing platforms and understanding how analytics could be used to drive new innovation.

What other classes did you take that informed innovation management in your current job?

In addition to my CIP experience, I found MGMT 613 (Managing the Enterprise) with Professor Exequiel (Zeke) Hernandez very helpful, as it gave me a framework for understanding the importance of the types of partnerships that could help accelerate disruptive innovation vs. incremental innovation. One of my key takeaways from that class was that a hub-and-spoke model for strategic alliances was more likely to result in disruptive innovation, whereas an integrated alliance network would more likely lead to incremental innovation due to the fact that your partners would be sharing the same information in the integrated alliance. This finding was corroborated by Professor Joe Simmons’ class in Managerial Decision Making in which he showed us the importance of thinking independently and avoiding group think.

What are the advantages of working at an established firm (as opposed to a startup)?

Working at an established firm has unique advantages over a startup. While startups give you the opportunity to really get your hands dirty from an operational standpoint, they oftentimes lack the resources that a large company can provide. Even something as basic as a subscription to the best research journals or access to market research reports is an advantage that should not be overlooked. But even more than that, the biggest resource that large companies can provide is people resources. In particular, I have found that the mentorship in working with and learning from subject matter experts across different disciplines is unparalleled. A big company has the ability to support bringing most functions in house instead of outsourcing, so you have access to these people. Additionally, established companies tend to be able to support many more innovation programs because of their sheer size. This translates into many different projects that one could support vs. just keeping a single idea alive at a smaller company.

What advice do you have for current students interested in managing innovation at a large company?

The problem I’ve seen with managing corporate innovation is that since most of the ideas are not aligned to a company’s existing business model, gaining traction is difficult. Even if most people acknowledge and understand that the company’s future success is dependent on these types of initiatives, commercial leaders are typically not incentivized to make these sorts of risky investments. So these early-stage innovation programs may die even before they’ve gotten off the ground.

To help avoid issues like this, it’s important that innovation programs don’t operate in silos. Teams focused on innovation need to work with the company’s commercial leads to obtain buy-in and continued support. And these programs should ideally have a product roadmap that delivers something in the short, medium, and long term to the business. Ideally, innovation programs would have their own profit and loss account to avoid a short-sighted approach to innovation. On the other hand, innovation programs should still have quantifiable metrics to understand their return on investment. Too often, innovation programs have no meaningful metrics because they are not profitable. However, they can still be measured by things like consumer acceptance or consumer purchase intent.

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