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

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.



While it’s far too early to assess the results, the goal is to put Wisconsin biomanufacturing on the map. “If we didn’t do this,” Johnson says, “somebody else was going to fill this gap.”

Another part of her mission at BioForward is legislative advocacy. In recent years, that has meant protecting university research, educating the public about its importance, and convincing the Wisconsin Legislature to pass a law allowing pharmacists to dispense “biosimilars,” which are biological products that are therapeutically equivalent to, or otherwise interchangeable with other biological products that have been approved and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The measure promises to save patients money through cheaper equivalents.

It also means lobbying the new Legislature in January to pass so-called WINS legislation pertaining to Wisconsin innovation. The official name is the Workforce and Innovation Network for Success Act, and it would create an Innovation Fund and Council charged with identifying opportunities for more private sector engagement and national and international exposure for Wisconsin industry clusters. Funding generated by the Innovation Fund will be used to enhance key industries such as biohealth, water technology, food and beverage industries, energy, and advanced manufacturing.

For these industry-building reasons, Johnson has earned Women of Industry recognition. “It’s certainly an honor to be recognized,” she states. “I know of so many amazing women who I admire myself.”

Read the rest of our 2017 Women of Industry features:

  • Christine Beatty, senior center and senior services director for the Madison Senior Center
  • Teri Bruns, vice president of global partner solutions for VMware
  • Deborah Gilpin, president and CEO, Madison Children's Museum
  • Karen DeSanto, executive director, Boys & Girls Club of West Central Wisconsin

Click here to register for the 2018 Women of Industry awards luncheon on Nov. 15 at the Best Western Premier Park Hotel.

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