Sunday, April 3, 2022
Jacob Johnson is using finance for good


Jacob Johnson with son Callan
Jacob Johnson with his son Callan.

Jacob Johnson (BBA06) is a founding team member and principal of the Laerdal Million Lives Fund, a $100M mission-driven venture capital fund investing in global healthcare technologies that increase healthcare access and improve outcomes.

It’s a perfect fit for Johnson, who has been saving lives since high school. He was a lifeguard in Madison, Wis. as a teenager and continued to lifeguard and teach swimming lessons in Iowa City as a college student.

Johnson launched his career in Chicago as a consultant with FactSet Research Systems, working with their ubiquitous software platform.

Iowa Connection: Philip Hadley (BBA84), of the Philip Hadley Finance Lab in the Pappajohn Business Building, is the former CEO of research systems at FactSet.

“It was a great experience in Chicago,” Johnson said. “My role was supporting investment banking clients. After a few years, I realized it was something I wanted to go into, but it was 2008-2009—investment banks weren’t exactly hiring.”

So, he did what any finance grad intending to get into investment banking would do—get his master’s in education.

Wait, what?

“I knew the best path was probably to go and get my MBA so that I could enter as an associate,” he said. “But before pursuing that, I wanted to do something different.”

Johnson took a chance and pursued a unique opportunity. In Chicago, he was volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters, which put the public education system on his radar. He also had a friend who turned him on to the Teach for America (TFA) program.

He applied for TFA and hoped. Annually, 40,000 applicants vie for only 4,000 slots.

Johnson was accepted and assigned to Hawaii, where he stayed for three years and concurrently completed his master’s in education.

Even though Hawaii “was hard to leave given how beautiful it is,” Johnson did, to get his MBA at Duke.

MBA in hand, Johnson relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has now lived for seven years. He was an investment banking associate with Harris Williams & Co. and vice president of investment banking at GCA Advisors (now part of Houlihan Lokey) before becoming a founding partner and principal at the Laerdal Million Lives Fund.

“I always wanted to work for an impact focused organization,” Johnson said. “At GCA I was exposed to healthcare in banking by Jeff Trost [who is now Laerdal Million Lives Fund’s managing partner]. For me, it was an awakening. Even on the business side, everyone is looking to do good.”

Johnson was approached by Trost to start at the $100M venture capital fund in March 2020, just as COVID-19 was taking hold in the United States.

“Our mission felt more important than ever,” he said. “It was profound because on my third day, as we were looking for office space in San Francisco, the city went into lockdown.”

The Laerdal Million Lives Fund is supported by and affiliated with the Laerdal family, who made their name as global leaders in resuscitation simulation through Laerdal Medical. If you’ve taken a CPR training, you’ve probably worked with their mannequins. They also have Laerdal Global Health, which focuses on neonatal and maternal health in the developing world.

The Laerdal Million Lives Fund intends to make venture capital-type financial returns while assisting the Laerdal companies reach the goal of helping to save one million lives annually by 2030.

“We think both are possible,” Johnson says.

Laerdal Million Lives Fund portfolio

The gains will be delivered back to the Laerdal company after the ten-year cycle of the fund. Johnson hopes the first fund is so successful it will result in even larger reinvestments in second and third iterations of the fund, helping millions of people along the way.

Part of his day-to-day involves screening for investment opportunities globally. The week we interviewed Johnson, he had spoken to companies in Australia, India, Nigeria, and New York City, all addressing different problems, patient populations, and geographies.

While Laerdal doesn’t invest in pharmaceuticals or the therapeutic side of healthcare, they are actively looking to invest in entrepreneurs and start-up companies in the digital health space.

“I absolutely love the work that we do. I feel very fortunate to be able to tie everything together, my finance background and wanting to make an impact. It really is the perfect job for me. It's so interesting and challenging. I feel very, very lucky.”

While not every finance alum can be a principal at a mission-driven fund, Johnson says they can still make a difference.

“Find an organization you’re passionate about. There’s no role too small,” he says. “Donating money is great, but if you have time, volunteering has a profound impact.”


This article originally appeared in the 2022 issue of Exchange magazine.