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Julian Upton is Pharmaceutical Executive's Online and European Editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
From big pharma to underdog biotech, a mission to empower.
BJ Jones had an unconventional start for a pharma executive. He graduated from the US Air Force Academy and served as a Weapons Specialist at Wright-Paterson Air Force Base, where he prepared tactical threat assessments for senior Department of Defense and NATO officials on enemy fighter aircraft. As a captain, he went on to serve as a function manager at Armstrong Laboratory, Brooks Air Force Base, TX, leading 22 professionals in research and development for the USAF’s $15 million artificial intelligence (AI) in training program.
While he worked at the forefront of technology and AI, what Jones really gained from his experience in the military was how to be a leader. He was still very young when given the opportunity to lead large teams, and he learned quickly that the job of a leader is “to line up bright, hardworking individuals behind a shared vision and goal, and create a pathway for them to achieve that goal.”
He also saw that leadership is “not about you as the leader, it’s about empowering people.” He explains, “Some call that approach ‘servant leadership,’ and it is very much my MO—leadership that is both inspirational and delivers results.”
After almost a decade in the military, Jones attracted the attention of the pharma industry and was recruited by Bristol Myers Squibb into a management development program. He says pharma was not even in the top 50 of industries he’d considered joining, but he soon saw there were “many consistencies between what drew me to the military and what drew me to pharma.” He explains, “Basically, it’s about giving back and living a life of service. My parents raised me with a passion to serve God and serve others, so pharma was a natural next step for me. It’s all about people, it’s all about patients. That inspired and excited me.”
Jones’ first role at BMS in 1996 was as senior marketing manager for consumer medicines; by 2002, he was spearheading the launch of the company’s blockbuster antipsychotic drug, Abilify. Moving to NitroMed in 2004 as VP, marketing and business development, he helped to transition that firm from a biotech R&D organization to a fully integrated, commercial-stage company and led the first launch of BiDil, a heart-failure medication and the first-ever drug indicated for a specific racial subset of the population.
Just over a year after joining Boehringer-Ingelheim in November 2007, he was managing approximately one-third of US sales of BI’s branded product portfolio in the respiratory, cardiovascular, CNS, and diabetes therapeutic areas. Subsequent roles saw Jones rise further up the ranks, first at AstraZeneca as VP, head of sales for US Diabetes, followed by a three-year tenure at Takeda’s general medicine business unit, where in 2018 he won the Takeda Executive Team Award for excellence in leadership and business performance through organization and marketplace transformation.
After spending the previous 12 years with big pharma organizations, in 2019 Jones made the move to Biohaven Pharmaceuticals, a biotech with a focus on neurological and neuropsychiatric diseases, founded in 2014 by Vlad Coric, MD. In anticipation of FDA approval of Biohaven’s migraine treatment, Nurtec® ODT, Jones had less than a year to complete the “next-to-impossible” task of leading the organization’s vertical integration into a fully capable, commercial biopharma company that was ready to launch a novel drug. As chief commercial officer, migraine and common disease, he built a best-in-class commercial capability with over 700 of the industry’s best and brightest during his first 10 months in the role. When FDA approved Nurtec ODT in February 2020, the company was ready to launch into the increasingly competitive market for calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP)-based therapies for the acute treatment of migraine.
These drugs block the CGRP protein that may cause inflammation and pain in the nervous system of people who have migraine attacks. They block the sites in and around the brain where CGRP must attach to work.
Launching against the headwinds of the COVID pandemic, Nurtec ODT, nevertheless, took off quickly and within 16 weeks was a brand leader in the CGRP class. By March 2021, more than 500,000 Nurtec prescriptions had been written. Biohaven’s move into the CGRP space was likened to David vs. Goliath; Nurtec was up against several entrenched competitors in the migraine market, most notably Lilly (Reyvow) and Allergan, now AbbVie (Ubrelvy). Nurtec is administered as a tablet that is placed on or under the tongue when symptoms of a migraine episode start to occur.
Jones relished the chance to propel underdog Biohaven to a position of strength in the market. What also attracted him to the young company were the principles that founder Coric established right at the start.
“Vlad is a psychiatrist and he literally started the company from his clinical office,” says Jones. “So, it is very much a patient-centric culture focused on ‘speed to patient;’ how we can address patients’ needs in the most focused and efficient manner.”
The organization is “ripe for growth,” says Jones, and he would “love to help it grow to five or 10 times today’s market capitalization.”
But he’s also passionate that the company doesn’t lose its identity, its culture. These things can happen: “One day you wake up and you’re big pharma,” he says.
“I’d like to make sure we stay consistent with our values today, to keep that focus on the ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ culture that Biohaven has built so far. And I absolutely believe that it’s a competitive advantage for us to remain focused on those values.”
Biohaven’s “family culture” is one that Jones’ brand of servant leadership goes a long way to sustain. “It really helps to bring a strong helping of humility to everything you do,” he says, “because you’re never going to have all the answers, even as a very senior leader in our industry.” He explains, “There are people who work for me who have forgotten more about their areas of expertise than I’ll ever know. And that’s a great thing, because it’s not about me, it’s about what the team can achieve, and my ability to invest in them and provide them with the support and the resources they need.”
Leading his team at Biohaven is not so far removed from Jones’ home life. He has four kids, all becoming adults now, and he gets great satisfaction from “just observing them every day, watching them mature as individuals and investing in their growth and success.” He says he’s been able to apply at work what he’s learned from his home life—and vice versa. He adds, sincerely, “I’m the same person at home with my kids as I am here on the job.”
To read the profiles of all 2021 EPL winners, click here.
Julian Upton is Pharm Exec’s European and Online Editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.