Value Added: The importance of heeding some fatherly advice

Thomas Heath
Reporter June 19, 2011

You can’t overestimate the effect a father figure can have on one’s success. Ask Evan Jones, a biotech investor from Potomac.

He grew up under two business mentors. His grandfather, Rodney Wilcox Jones, founded the company that later become the eponymous Jones of New York, the successful women’s apparel company.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

Evan’s other mentor, stepfather Edwin C. “Jack” Whitehead, made a fortune mass-marketing blood tests and endowed the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Boston with $135 million.

His grandfather taught him how to learn from his mistakes. Whitehead outlined an apprenticeship for Evan Jones that set him on a path to one day own his own business.

Both had a profound effect on Jones’s career, instilling in him a passion for business and entrepreneurship. Jones would eventually acquire a Silver Spring-based company called Digene, sell it and become fabulously successful.

He is widely respected in the biotechnology field. Jones invests alongside such names as Kleiner Perkins, one of the most successful venture capital firms in the world, and TPG, the private equity giant founded by former Washingtonian David Bonderman.

“I am a very lucky person,” said the 54-year-old entrepreneur.

His latest enterprise is Gaithersburg-based OpGen, which builds devices that help map the genetic makeup of diseases.

Jones said OpGen’s technology could help respond to the current E. coli outbreak in Germany, the ongoing cholera problem in Haiti and the drug-resistant bacteria recently found in cow’s milk in Europe.

OpGen has 58 employees. The company had $4 million in revenue last year and is expected to more than double that in 2011.

Jones grew up in a succession of leafy enclaves with names like Bucks County, Princeton, Rye and Greenwich. The chatter around the dinner table often focused on business.

His grandfather, who had founded the Jones Knitting Co. in the 1920s, provided Jones with his first business lesson. Jones Knitting was built around the demand for long underwear.

“When cars with heat and homes with central heating were developed, demand for long underwear dropped,” Jones said.

So his grandfather, with the help of Jones’s father, Curtis, moved the family company into higher-margin women’s apparel. The business stayed alive until it was pummeled by foreign competition. It was sold to W.R. Grace in the 1960s, Jones said, and later, entrepreneur Sidney Kimmel bought it and built Jones New York into the retailing giant of today.

Jones’s stepfather has had a more lasting influence on him.

Jack Whitehead was an entrepreneur who revolutionized blood testing. The family company, Technicon, had been in the polio respirator business. When polio was cured in the 1950s, the business evaporated, just as reduced long-underwear demand decimated Jones Knitting.

The resourceful Whitehead transformed Technicon, hooking up with an inventor to develop machines capable of widespread blood testing for such things as cholesterol and blood glucose. Whitehead saw the potential in the “blood analyzer, and commercialized it on a global scale.

He took Technicon public in the 1960s and sold it to the cosmetics firm Revlon for $250 million in the 1970s. The company is now part of Bayer, the German pharmaceutical giant. Blood analysis is a $30 billion global business and is fundamental to modern medicine.

After his sophomore year at Duke University, Evan Jones, then 21, traveled the world for a year, working for his stepfather’s company and learning the business. He finished at the University of Colorado in Boulder and graduated in 1980.

“I thought life was going to be easy, and when I went looking for a job, there were none.”

He got a job working the 3 a.m.-to-11 a.m. shift at a laboratory that used Technicon analyzers, setting his sights on advancing in the medical field. That’s when Whitehead stepped in, telling Jones that he lacked the education and experience to become a top-tier scientist. He suggested a blueprint for Jones to one day build a successful company:

(1) Get a master’s in business administration from a top school.

(2) Work in a well-run company for several years to gain front-line business experience.

(3) Work as a venture capitalist to learn how companies get started.

(4) Be successful with the first three steps.

Whitehead promised to help him if he followed the advice.

Jones earned his MBA at Wharton, graduating in 1983. He then worked for PerkinElmer, a huge medical instrument company that hired him to start their life-sciences business.

“That’s where I learned how things work in large, well-run companies,” he said. He gained valuable experience in the emerging DNA and biotechnology field.

He left PerkinElmer after three years and joined a New York venture capital firm as an associate, learning how to identify technologies that could form the basis of new companies. His work included visiting the licensing offices at big research institutions such as Harvard and MIT, finding patents on new inventions that had commercial potential. He worked there for three years.

In 1990, Jones and a friend started an investment firm, Armonk Partners. They acquired a small company with 30 employees that sold purified bottled water to the National Institutes of Health for use in testing.

The company, which was on the verge of bankruptcy, was called Digene. Jones used his own savings and borrowed money from Whitehead, and the two invested $7 million.

After several months, Jones and his partner, Chuck Fleischman, moved to Washington to help rescue and build Digene, which was losing $100,000 a month.

“If you want to be in biotech, you want to be in Boston, Washington and Maryland, San Francisco or San Diego,” Jones said.

Digene’s early days were difficult. The company was undercapitalized. Armonk wrote checks to cover the bills. After Whitehead died in 1992, Jones started funding the company and later raised seed money from several Washington area investors.

Digene went public in 1996 and in 2003 received the Food and Drug Administration’s approval for its test to screen for the cause of cervical cancer, with a potential U.S. market of 35 million tests a year. Jones called the screening test “a home-run product.”

The owners and the wealthy local investors who bought in made millions. Digene was eventually acquired in 2007 by Qiagen for $1.6 billion.

“I made enough to retire and create jVen,” he said, referring to the name of his venture capital firm, Jones Venture.

Jones Venture takes ownership positions through investments of $1 to $10 million in various biotechnology start-ups. One profitable investment was a company that specialized in testing for rare genetic diseases in children. Fluidigm, based in San Francisco, is a biotech tools company that creates instruments for biological research.

“Building these companies is hard work,” said Jones. “It takes years and millions in capital.”

It also takes the right fatherly influence.

Follow me on Twitter at addedvalueth.

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