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Women of Industry: Lisa Johnson’s STEM-winding career

Lisa Johnson, right, is one of the 2018 Women of Industry award winners.

Lisa Johnson, right, is one of the 2018 Women of Industry award winners.

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In her chief executive role at BioForward Wisconsin, Lisa Johnson has an appreciation for what biohealth businesses confront on a daily basis. She’s been there herself.

Johnson’s industry experience with Novagen, Semba Biosciences, and Merck, a German-based multinational health technology company, gives her a unique perspective, especially now that she leads an organization representing many of the same businesses. She is credited with bringing new energy to biohealth industry members and ensuring their voices are heard on both a local and state level.

Whether it’s attracting and retaining talent, marketing, or other business functions, she’s tried to translate that private-sector experience into supporting this life-giving industry. “I’ve worked to build companies, and I’ve worked globally,” says Johnson, one of five area women to be honored in this year’s Women of Industry awards program. “I have an appreciation for what businesspeople go through.”

Women of biohealth

Johnson is especially in tune with what women in biohealth go through, which is why BioForward, under her direction, has launched Women in Biohealth-Madison. Simply put, she knows what it’s like to feel somewhat isolated in the executive suite, and as the industry works to diversify its executive suite and its overall workforce, it’s important to provide support. Another benefit could be a reduction in the pay gap between men and women in general because jobs in the so-called STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math are among the highest-paying in the economy and they mostly are filled by men, so the more that can be done to diversify them, the smaller the gap is likely to be.

In this endeavor, Johnson teamed with people at UW–Madison and women-led companies such as Stratatech. The organization has grown to more than 300 active women and features professional development workshops, networking opportunities, and a coaching circle program that allows for women in the industry to seek and offer advice, build connections, and grow in their careers. All the stakeholders “recognized that we need to support women, especially women in leadership positions,” Johnson says. “That was important to me. It was about paying it back. We don’t have enough women in leadership roles, and we need more diversity in our workforce.”

Johnson continues to grow BioForward by taking full advantage of business development and legislator and university-engagement opportunities. Leveraging a network of national and international connections, she works to tell the industry’s story locally, regionally, and globally, and she works to build industry partnerships that enhance local innovation. With workforce development in mind, she’s also collaborating with industry leaders to develop a national marketing campaign to attract biohealth talent to Wisconsin in order to sustain the industry’s growth.

She was instrumental in the launch of the Forward BIO Initiative to advance stem cell and regenerative medicine efforts on UW campuses and beyond. The initiative includes a Biomanufacturing Center of Excellence to support technological innovation and workforce development, and to create groundbreaking technologies such as new cells, tissues, pharmaceuticals, and therapeutic medical devices. The ultimate goal is more efficient development of technologies that can impact society and the training of students who are better equipped to start new companies and to develop technology.

Executive Director Bill Murphy’s vision is to be a center for manufacturing excellence.

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