Been There, Done That: A Chat with TLA’s Newest Mentor-in-Residence, TJ Johnson

Jan. 15, 2021

New MIR brings decades of experience and entrepreneurial savvy to UArizona life sciences startups.

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Jenni and TJ Johnson
Photo courtesy of TJ Johnson Jenni and TJ Johnson

TJ Johnson is no stranger to business building. As the newest addition to the Tech Launch Arizona Venture Development Team, TJ will serve as a Mentor-in-Residence, advising new startup teams and helping position them for successful futures.  

Considering his long and successful career, new companies working with him will benefit from a wealth of experience. He retired in 2019 after serving as CEO of HTG Molecular Diagnostics (HTG). During his tenure, he stewarded the company through multiple phases, including transitioning a complete re-startup through high growth, strategic and innovation planning, raising investment funding, and recruiting an experienced leadership team. When he took the company public in 2015, it was valued at 25 times revenuecompany revenue grew from $4M to $21.5M over the next four years, and it was recognized as a top 500 technology growth company in 2018 by Deloitte. 

Prior to joining HTG, TJ spent five years as a senior vice president for Ventana Medical Systems, now Roche Tissue Diagnostics. During his time there, he had responsibilities spanning operations, global marketing, strategy, and corporate development. He was instrumental in driving a culture of accountability that led to high growth and a 10-fold increase in shareholder value with Ventana’s 2008 acquisition by Roche for $3.4B.  

Building on his success, TJ founded his own advisory firm dedicated to executive coaching and assisting small and early-stage companies. He is also an angel investor and a founding member of the Arizona Bioscience Board.  

In his new role at TLA, TJ will specialize in working with startups in the life sciences market space.  


TLA: What attracted you most to the Mentor-in-Residence position? 

TJ: Well, I enjoy helping others get past the business obstacles. I really saw this position as a way to take all the help that I’ve received over the past 30 years and pay it forward to folks in similar situations. I recently made a comment to a young CEO in a coaching session, I said, “I wish I had someone as I started the CEO journey who is like I am now, experienced.” In my first CEO role, I didn’t know how to raise money or handle many of the aspects of early-stage companies. I had to learn the hard way – by doing it. I’m excited to be that person for UA startups. 

TLA: From those you’ve met thus far, what are you most excited about with this new post? 

TJ: As of today, I’ve gotten to meet with 3 startup teams, I’ve got 8 on my list and I’ll meet with 2 more next week. I’m right in the middle of getting to know folks, but I’ve seen that there’s an openness and an interest in learning new ideas. The teams are open to and interested in hearing from someone who has “been there and done that” like me, who can help them translate what they do from academic research language into business lingo. They’re all really unique, very receptive, and very motivated. It’s hard to navigate balancing an academic career with entrepreneurship, so I’m excited about helping them through those challenges and become successful.  

TLA: What are the greatest challenges you see UArizona startups facing, and how will you help them? 

TJ: In my experience, I’ve seen a lot of company founders who start off thinking they’ll be great CEOs. Then they try it and realize that it can be an all-consuming job, and they learned that they’re just not skilled at it and decide to stay on the research side of the science. That’s an important realization but it’s no reason not to do a startup. In fact, my goal is to not only help them figure out what role they are most capable of playing but go further to help them understand that – no matter what role that might be – we can make it happen. Every day I learn more and more about the amazing people and resources that TLA brings to the table for these research-based startups, and it’s really fantastic. Doing a startup is a huge challenge, but this organization really sets them up to succeed.  

Want to connect with TJ? Send him an email at tjj@tla.arizona.edu

Paul Tumarkin, Assistant Director, Marketing & Communications