BioLeader Interview – Huw Jones (March 2021)
For over 20 years, Huw Jones has been a serial CEO and NED of early stage and listed biotech companies. Throughout his varied career he has launched dozens of new medicines, in several countries, completed tens of M&A transactions and managed many drug development programmes.
He was appointed CEO of Evgen Pharma PLC, in October 2020, an AIM listed, clinical stage cancer and inflammation company. He recently led the raise of £10m in a placing and up to a further £1m in an open offer in a heavily oversubscribed and transformative deal for Evgen. Board roles include NED of Ixaka Ltd (formerly Rexgenero), a cell and gene therapy company with operations in London, Paris, and Seville; and NEC of Chronos Therapeutics Ltd in Oxford. Huw is also a strategic advisor to Cambridge based Gen2 Neuroscience, an antibody company focussed on tauopathies such as Alzheimer’s Disease. He was surprised and delighted to have been awarded European CEO of the year 2016/17 for drug discovery by European CEO Magazine, alongside leaders in their sectors from Adidas, Unilever, and Spotify.
A native of south west Wales, Huw is a passionate rugby union supporter, enjoys SCUBA diving, cycling and wine appreciation.
Key milestones in your career journey to date?
- Leaving Wales at the age of 21 to pursue my PhD at Birmingham was a major cultural milestone.
- Making the leap from academia to industry; adjusting to being focused and directed rather than the freedom that existed in academia, particularly in the 1980s.
- Leaving the safety of big pharma in the mid-90s, joining the team setting up Elan Europe and the pace, fun and ambiguity associated with growth from start-up to a substantial division (600 employees) within five years.
- Recognising that being entrepreneurial is no guarantee of income!
- Each leap after that was a learning as is returning to a PLC environment.
Who has had the greatest influence over your career?
- The late John Groom, who I worked with at SmithKline, Athena and Elan mastered the art of creating the safe, but highly challenging environment with great care, humour and respect for employees. John got the most out of people; by achieving very high expectations and equally high trust levels.
Your approach to spotting and developing top talent?
- Create values which give people space, with clear parameters; trust them and assume cock-up before conspiracy; paranoia is destructive.
- Delegate whilst developing the sixth sense of applying a subtle steer at the right time; act quickly and avoid procrastination.
- Many of my colleagues from Elan days have gone on to achieve even greater success; which is such a rewarding outcome.
What attributes make an outstanding leader in today’s world?
- Authenticity which to me represents humility, honesty, clarity, consistency which creates credibility, flexibility, and rigour.
- If you invest the intellectual effort at the front end, there is a greater chance of success.
- Channel your personality to lead others, whilst remembering to be measured in your responses. However, pluck nettles, don’t water them.
How do you create a culture of continual learning, innovation and curiosity, and how might volunteering contribute towards this?
- Make time for culture creation, so it becomes an organisational behaviour, by involving colleagues in decision making, harnessing team effort, within a safe environment.
- Volunteering is a personal decision; I have identified three types of volunteer: those with a Sense of Duty, Egotists, and the Selfless.
The 2020 pandemic has changed the way we all work, possibly forever, what will remain beyond Covid and what will you welcome back?
- Clearly remote working has created much more flexibility, which most welcome.
- It is evident that more personal honesty and natural personality are flowing during video calls as we have adjusted to virtual communication.
- Will welcome back personal contact; the truly social part of work over a coffee, drink, or dinner to really get to know the team you work with.
- A hybrid model of working will inevitably follow once we have that choice.
Thoughts on the current funding model for early stage companies; and the impact on valuations and availability of capital catalysed by the 2020 pandemic?
- There is no shortage of capital out there – all analyses confirm that.
- COVID prevention and treatment are the easy and perhaps lazy bets, but the consequences of the pandemic – lack of e.g. routine surgery, including cancer, will create increased clinical needs and opportunities for investment.
- Post and long COVID will cause a resurgence of mental health investment opportunities.
Regulators have adjusted their pace to meet the challenges of Covid; how can you foresee this might play out with the approval of future non-Covid therapies and technologies?
- COVID necessitated very a fast approvals process.
- Is this sustainable across other therapeutic areas?
- There could be an argument for more sequential or rolling approval in areas of high unmet needs.
- The jury is out!
What will be the biggest technological transformation in the industry over the next 5 years?
- Biomarkers will become increasingly sophisticated.
- AI could catalyse more rolling approvals but has more to give.
What is your hidden talent or something that might surprise others about you?
- Welsh cliché’s + 6 toes on my right foot – a polydactyl!
Your simple philosophy on life?
- Treat others as you would wish to be treated.
Words of wisdom?
- Best Advice I was given: Back yourself, be yourself. You know what you are good at and vice versa.
- Advice I’d give: As above.
- What I wish I’d known: That any plan always takes longer and costs more. Early in my career: not everyone who is friendly is your friend and vice versa.