She has been called the Danish biotech queen and she is not afraid of responsibility in her role as CEO. On the contrary, Britt Meelby Jensen enjoys leading, setting ambitious goals and accelerating company growth.
Britt Meelby Jensen knew early on that she wanted to make a difference in the world, but she did not know that it would be within life sciences and the pharmaceutical field.
“When I was growing up in Aarhus [Denmark] I dreamed about becoming a journalist or a reporter, something that was driven by my curiosity and interest for society and what goes on in the world,” she says.
But in order to become a journalist in Denmark you had to show up for a test, which took place when she was out of the country, and so she decided to study business instead, a subject also driven by her curiosity. Learning the art of creating a company attracted her. She received an MBA from the Solvay Business School in Brussels and a MSc from the Copenhagen Business School, and she also spent time working at the European Parliament in Brussels for Karin Riis-Jorgensen, Member of Parliament.
“My desire to make a difference was a great part of the reason why I became involved in politics, and learning how politics can change society.”
“My desire to make a difference was a great part of the reason why I became involved in politics, and learning how politics can change society,” she says. Her curiosity also drove her to the well renowned McKinsey & Co where she worked as a management consultant for over two years. “I had decided to go back to the business world, but was not sure what I wanted to focus on, so I joined McKinsey in 2000, to learn about different industries and disciplines in business.”
Not afraid of responsibility
Her time at McKinsey also made her want to take on more operational roles in her career and she began working at the Danish flagship company Novo Nordisk, where she held different managerial positions.
“I learned many things at Novo Nordisk, for example how important it is to have a strong team. To find and hire the right competencies is key to success. My time at Novo also taught me that the best recipe for success is ambition and hard work, and on a personal level I learned that I could do more than I thought. I proved to myself that I could deliver and I learned not to be afraid of responsibility and took on new roles.”
After 11 years at Novo she received an offer to join another Danish life science company, Dako, as their new CEO. Dako had just been acquired by the US company Agilent and Meelby Jensen’s role was to lead the company through a strategic important launch. It gave her confidence and a lot of experience, she says.
“Leading a fully independent public company was very attractive, and I felt full of energy and ready for this kind of role.”
“But when Dako was integrating more with Agilent, the offer to become CEO of Zealand Pharma in 2015 was a natural next step. Leading a fully independent public company was very attractive, and I felt full of energy and ready for this kind of role.”
A catalyst year
Zealand Pharma, founded in 1998, specializes in discovery, design and development of peptide-based medicines. Under Meelby-Jensen’s leadership, it has grown from 100 to 140 employees, and has a portfolio of its own medicines in the late development stages, as well as product candidates under license collaborations with Sanofi and Boehringer Ingelheim.
“I was equally attracted to the company itself, I knew it had a great culture and a strong research platform, and I felt privileged to join at an important time, to set a new ambition for the company’ future success.”
And indeed, 2015 was a real catalyst year for Zealand. It defined a new direction for the company whereby it aimed to retain full ownership and control if its product candidates within special or rare gastrointestinal and metabolic diseases.
“We formulated an ambitious strategy with aggressive timelines, and then we gradually started to hire new people with different competences.”
“A new Chairman was recruited at the same time as me , new board members came on board and I made changes to the management. We clarified how we could build on the core of the company and how we could unlock more value by maintaining the ownership and control of our products all the way to the market. We formulated an ambitious strategy with aggressive timelines, and then we gradually started to hire new people with different competences,” says Meelby Jensen.
A defining year
For turning this new strategy into practice, 2017 was a defining year, states Meelby Jensen.
“The first Zealand-invented drug was launched in the US [Soliqua, marketed by Sanofi] and our portfolio now includes four late stage clinical programs, with potential to launch in major markets within 3 to 4 years.”
2017 the company reported positive Phase II results with its long-acting GLP-2 analog, glepaglutide, for short bowel syndrome, and this year, the Phase III trial is set to begin. It also started its first fully-owned phase 3 program with dasiglucagon for treatment of severe hypoglycemia.
“Our pipeline now contains late stage programs that are fully controlled and owned by Zealand – and that is a huge change in a short time. But we have worked hard and dedicatedly to get where we are,” said Meelby Jensen, with pride in her voice.
“When I joined, investors only focused on our partnership with Sanofi, where we do not have control. Today, they focus on our own pipeline, and that is a big change in a short period.”
Their partnerships with big pharma companies are still very important, she continues, but the strategy is different. “When I joined, investors only focused on our partnership with Sanofi, where we do not have control. Today, they focus on our own pipeline, and that is a big change in a short period.”
Partnerships are still important to Zealand, at all stages of development, but it is different kinds of partnerships than previously, she says. While the company aim to launch themselves within rare diseases they will still engage with partners where it makes sense to leverage their infrastructure and strength. The license agreement with Sanofi was entered in 2003 and covers today tow marketed products.
“With 10 % royalty on global sales and outstanding milestone payments, this agreement remains an important financial asset for Zealand to contribute to its development of its own programs,” said Meelby Jensen.
An emotional milestone
Another milestone for Meelby Jensen and her colleagues at Zealand Pharma was their IPO on the NASDAQ global select market in the US, August 2017. They became the first Danish biotech company to become dual-listed and they raised USD 90 million, and ringing the bell at the opening ceremony in New York was more emotional than Meelby Jensen had expected it to be.
“It was also a great relief for me; I felt a big responsibility to deliver on this so it became an emotional mix of relief and joy.”
“It was a result of our hard work and it secured funding so we could continue our development of new medicines at full speed. It was also a great relief for me; I felt a big responsibility to deliver on this so it became an emotional mix of relief and joy,” she says.
Running a biotech company also involves major risks that you constantly need to control. The development of new medicines takes many years from the early stage, costs are high and the probability of reaching the market is relatively low, although increasing as you advance into later stages of development. To manage this Meelby Jensen focused on planning ahead, to be able to move fast forwar, she says. One such example is the step to the US stock exchange, where Zealand Pharma decided to raise money and not to be depending on revenues from Sanofi. Going to the US was also a strategic move to make the company more visible on the world’s largest market for biotech investments.
Life science in Denmark
Zealand Pharma is located in one of the most flourishing life science regions in the world, Medicon Valley, and Meelby Jensen says that one benefit of being located there is the closeness to both great university research and talent, due to multiple strong life science companies that have stayed in the region, like Novo Nordisk and Lundbeck. However, given the growth of the sector, finding the right competencies is sometimes very hard.
Last year the Danish Government’s Growth team for life sciences made 17 conclusion for the country’s future life science strategy; recommendations on how to increase their competitiveness within the field.
“I think it is very important that the Government focuses on our country’s biggest export and that they have involved leaders from the industry. For example, the establishment of a permanent Life Science office referring to the Danish Minister for Industry, Business and Financial Affairs, is a step in the right direction,” says Meelby Jensen.
Editor’s note: After this interview, in December 2018, Britt Meelby Jensen left Zealand Pharma to become the new CEO of Atos Medical.
Q&A Leadership: Britt Meelby Jensen
What is successful leadership to you?
“First of all you need to set a clear direction of where you want to go and make sure that everybody understands what it means to them. Secondly you have to be able to attract and develop the right team, not only individuals but a whole team.”
What is characteristic for your leadership style?
“I am ambitious and sets ambitious goals and I try to be clear and articulate about the rationale and how to reach them. I am demanding, on myself foremostly, but also on others, and I expect that everybody makes an effort to do their best. I am also open, transparent, and respectful, and I get a lot of energy from delivering results together with others.”
What are your experiences from being a female leader?
“At the same time, more can be done to encourage women to go for more senior roles, making them comfortable to go into unknown territories, being willing to pay the price that comes with it, but feeling comfortable that it is possible alongside a good family life.”
“I get asked about this a lot, but it has never been something that I have thought about as an issue for me, I feel privileged to have had the career opportunities I have had. However, I feel that it is important to improve female representation at the executive level in the industry, not only at board level. But there is no easy solution. I think there is still a lot of unconscious bias when recruiting people, and that many companies should update practices and criteria for promotions. At the same time, more can be done to encourage women to go for more senior roles, making them comfortable to go into unknown territories, being willing to pay the price that comes with it, but feeling comfortable that it is possible alongside a good family life.”
What is the best part of your job?
“Creating strong results together with a team is by far what I enjoy the most, as well as growing people and solving complex business challenges, turning them into strong results.”
Facts Britt Meelby Jensen
Born: Aarhus, Denmark
Education: MBA – Solvay Business School, Brussels (1998), MSc – Copenhagen Business School (2000)
Career: Management Consultant at McKinsey & Co (2000-2002), Different Managerial positions at Novo Nordisk (2002-2013), CEO of Dako A/S (2013-2014), CEO of Zealand Pharma (2015-2018), CEO of Atos Medical (2019- )
Family: Husband Nicolai Meelby Jensen, three kids
Role models: I seek inspiration from people in my network and among world leaders in business and politics and I don’t have any specific role models.
Latest read book : Sapiens: A Brief History of HumanKind by Y.N. Harai and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.
Favorite quote: “There is no man living who isn’t capable of doing more than he thinks he can do” – Henry Ford, but it should be wo(man)
Photographer: J Westley