At Johnson & Johnson’s Kendall, a celebrated Mankini gnome drives innovation

As one of the world’s largest health care companies, Johnson Johnson doesn’t exactly qualify as a startup. But J&J (as the cool kids call it) is striving for a startup vibe at its newly christened Boston Innovation Center in Kendall Square.

The corporate giant even has a quirky mascot to help employees get into the right mindset: a sunglass-wearing, swimsuit-strutting gnome named Mankini.

The foot-tall figurine is a sort of trophy, traveling to whichever Johnson Johnson innovation center (the company has similar facilities in Menlo Park and London, and one opening soon in Shanghai) was, well, the most innovative during the previous quarter.


“We strive each and every day to think and act as if we are a very small entity and very entrepreneurial,’’ said Robert Urban, who heads the Boston Innovation Center.

Why is Mankini in Cambridge this quarter?

“We had a great window of time [last quarter],’’ Urban said. “Some of the great relationships we’ve put in place have earned Mankini’s place here for us.’’

Those relationships include investments in early-stage biotech startups Rodin Therapeutics and Vedanta Biosciences. Rodin is working on treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders, and Vedanta is developing a drug to treat inflammatory bowel disease.

More to come on the Boston Innovation Center in next week’s Innovators video series, but the scantily clad elf just couldn’t wait.

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