Driving a medical revolution

In leading the development of cannabinoid prescription medicines, Justin Gover MBA’98D is making history while making people healthier

Driving a medical revolutionIn December 1998, when Justin Gover was preparing to graduate from INSEAD and take a job with a large pharmaceutical firm, he received an offer that changed everything.

The offer came from Dr Geoffrey Guy, founder of the biotech company where Justin previously worked, Ethical Holdings. Dr Guy flew to the Europe campus to tell Justin that he was starting a new company — one that researched the medicinal properties of cannabis to develop novel prescription medicines. He asked Justin to join him in building the company from scratch.

It was no small request. The proposed job carried enormous responsibilities, ranging from writing the company’s business plan to securing its funding to getting operations up and running.  Justin would have to navigate this process while managing controversies associated with developing cannabinoid prescription medicines, a concept that was unprecedented in the pharmaceutical industry. Finally, he would have to work without a salary while the company was in its earliest stages.

In spite of those drawbacks, Justin accepted the offer. “I was compelled by the idea of taking a whole new area of science that’s hugely interesting and somewhat controversial and [use it to] make important new medicines,” he says. “I felt that this was the opportunity to be part of something potentially historic.”

Justin’s instincts were right. In the 17 years since then, GW Pharmaceuticals has grown into a world leader in cannabinoid science and today maintains an impressive portfolio of cannabinoid-based pharmaceutical products. Listed on the Aim Market of the London Stock Exchange in London and NASDAQ since 2001 and 2013, respectively, the company has a market cap of over $2 billion.

As CEO, Justin has overseen the development of two novel drugs at GW Pharmaceuticals: SativexÒ, a drug indicated as a treatment for symptom improvement in patients with spasticity due to multiple sclerosis, and EpidiolexÒ, a drug aiming to treat seizures in children with highly treatment-resistant types of epilepsy. SativexÒ has already received approval in 27 countries and EpidiolexÒ is about to file for approval in the United States.

Justin is also leading the company as it expands into new treatment areas focused on paediatric neurology. The conditions that show most promise for treatment include autism spectrum disorders, psychiatric conditions and rare neonatal conditions. With these developments, GW Pharmaceuticals is now poised to become the company it envisioned nearly two decades ago: the global leader of prescription cannabinoid medicines.

Overcoming controversies and obstacles
While Justin celebrates these successes, he recognises that it took an arduous journey to get to this point. In the last 17 years, he explains, GW Pharmaceuticals has had to overcome a long sequence of hurdles to take cannabinoid prescription medicines from conception to reality.

For example, it was challenging to get the pharmaceutical community to accept the notion of plant-derived medicines and, more specifically, consider the validity of cannabinoid-based drugs. “The truth is, the modern era has been characterised by the development of synthetic chemicals as medicine,” Justin explains. “We were starting with what is essentially an illegal, recreational drug and applying rigorous science to identify and develop therapeutically active components of the cannabis plant as novel, bone fide prescription medicines.”

Photograph by Tim Bishop 10th November 2003 07776 187123

Growing Facility

GW Pharmaceuticals also had to deal with stringent requirements for quality control and manufacturing when formulating plant-derived compounds, especially because most compounds are chemically based and controlled in a laboratory. Growing and breeding cannabis for medicinal purposes was also an enormous undertaking, both from a logistical and regulatory perspective. Justin had to work closely with entities such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other regulatory groups to keep operations running smoothly.

While managing these challenges, Justin also had to develop an in-house team that controlled all aspects of the cannabinoid product-development process, from botanical research to extraction technology to formulation of drug-delivery technologies to clinical trials and regulatory affairs.

His training from INSEAD, he says, helped equip him to manage those varied responsibilities. “INSEAD allowed me to graduate with a much, much greater level of confidence in my business skills and gain a broader understanding of things that have become more relevant at different phases,” he says. “It allowed me to have a full understanding of all aspects of the business and layer on what I’d learned in practice.”

He looks back fondly on those days in business school. “The experience was probably the richest, most productive and most enjoyable year that I can remember, really,” he says. “You’re with incredibly talented people in a very diverse environment in a beautiful place and learning intensely and having fun at the same time. That’s difficult to beat.”

He also came away from the experience with more than just a degree: INSEAD is where he met his wife, Jamie.

Sharing values with INSEAD
While it’s been nearly two decades since Justin attended INSEAD, he says that he shares the same values system as the school and believes strongly in using business as a force for good. In fact, that belief kept Justin motivated during some of the more difficult times in GW Pharmaceutical’s history.

Justin says he applauds the work of Dean Ilian Mihov to instil those same values in the next generation of business leaders. “The vision is an admirable one — it sets INSEAD apart,” he says. “The idea that you can create value, earn a salary, go to work and the output of that is something that is positive for society is a powerful combination.”

The boldness of this vision parallels that of GW Pharmaceuticals, especially when the company was in its early days. “Until one or two years ago, people in general saw this as a somewhat brave and bold notion — it was not the area of focus for a mainstream pharmaceutical company,” he says. “And that’s, of course, where the opportunities lie.”

Justin hopes to see more students come out of INSEAD with the same thirst to do well and do good, as it’s brought him great satisfaction on a personal and professional level.

“There is no better job to have … to see your work have the potential to have an impact on so many people,” he says. “I am genuinely very proud to work at a company where the output is benefitting other people.”

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