JNJ’s First-Ever Center for Device Innovation Opens at Houston’s TMC

Houston—Christmas has come early for Billy Cohn this year.

Cohn, the renowned Houston heart surgeon and inventor, doesn’t bother to contain his excitement as he shows me around the Center for Device Innovation. The center opens today at the Texas Medical Center’s innovation campus, located in an old Nabisco cookie factory.

The center is a tinkerer’s ultimate playground, 26,000 square feet filled with a virtual reality operating room; an electronics lab with soldering stations and torque and force test equipment; a mechanical testing wet lab; a 3-D printing lab, two machine shops, and every type of nail, bolts, washers, and other hardware. Cohn calls it his very own Home Depot.

The center is the first-ever for the pharmaceutical giant JNJ. To explain why JNJ would set up an internal skunkworks with no stated deliverables, except to be innovative, Cohn talks about fishing. “You can cast 2,000 times and get three fish; that’s a good day of fishing,” he says. “You don’t want to be fishing right when you need a fish.”

What he means to say is that entities like the CDI can do the job of casting lures, fishing for innovations that eventually become tools needed by J&J companies as they seek to develop new medical technologies. You don’t want to start the process of innovation when you’re desperate for it, Cohn says.

The CDI team, he adds, can be focused on “blue-sky” projects, without having to feed the hunger of next quarter or next year’s balance sheets.

When he agreed to join JNJ Innovation last year and lead the pharmaceutical giant’s first-ever device skunkworks, Cohn says he looked forward to being able to leverage J&J’s considerable resources. “This gives me access to more talent, more ideas, and, operating underneath that banner, I’ll probably get to see a lot more stuff that I would normally not see,” he told me at the time. “This could help accelerate my own efforts to discover breakthroughs and advance them along.”

The CDI already has five projects in the works, and Cohn says he is thumbing through hundreds of resumes from engineers who want to join him. “We’re going to be bringing people to Houston,” he says.

When I ask about the kinds of projects he and his engineers will work on or who he’s hired so far, the normally voluble Cohn uncharacteristically clams up. “Well, you know me. I love to talk,” he says. “Open kimono? It’s not that it’s open. It doesn’t exist!”

But for now—and with a nod to Allie McCormick, JNJ’s Houston-based public relations manager, who is also on our tour—Cohn only says, “when we have something to talk about, we will shout it from the mountain tops.”

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