Jonathan Goodman of Knight Therepeutics Photo: Roger Lemoyne

Jonathan Goodman leans back in his chair, looking as if he’s savouring this moment. He’s about to launch into a telephone sales pitch—one he’s probably given hundreds of times. The fingers on one of his hands roll in rapid, restless waves across his thumb as he gears up to sell a U.S. drug company on the benefits of licensing the Canadian rights to one of its products to his new pharmaceutical sales and marketing company, Knight Therapeutics. The highly specialized medication, which has just received FDA approval in the United States, treats a sleeping disorder that commonly affects blind people.

Goodman has an impressive track record of finding lucrative markets for niche pharmaceuticals, and he wants this drug. He doles out some pleasantries to the company representative on the phone, then winds up for his pitch. “How can we help you in Canada with, uh…” There’s a pause as his eyes dart to notes he has attached to the wall beside him. He can’t recall the name of the drug. Then his eyes lock on what he’s searching for, and he drops it into his presentation, barely missing a beat. He moves on, sounding relaxed, confident, even a touch brash. None of the pauses or mild stutters that occasionally slow his more spontaneous speech enter into his next spiel.

During his 19-year career selling pharmaceuticals, he’s represented 35 firms, Goodman tells the company rep. “I could do this in my sleep if I wanted to.” Then he moves in for the kill. “Canada isn’t just one market,” he says. “It’s 10. You’re better off focusing on California than Canada.” His pitch? Let us handle north of the border.

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It’s a smart play for what he wants—and an angle he’s used before, when he was building Paladin Labs, the Montreal company he co-founded in 1995 and sold for $3 billion in one of 2014’s biggest acquisitions. Paladin was a spectacular success for Goodman—the company’s share price rose from $1.50 when it first went public to $140 by the time it was formally acquired by the U.S. firm Endo Health Solutions in February—and he’s hoping to pull off a second hit. With Knight, he is adopting an identical business model, even recruiting some of the same directors to his board. The only thing that’s different is Goodman himself. This time around, he’s running a company with a brain that doesn’t always do what he wants it to do.

Not many people can divide their lives in two as neatly as Goodman can. For him, the fault line emerged on Aug. 17, 2011—the day Goodman, a cycling enthusiast with a penchant for 100-kilometre spins, pulled on a Lycra jersey and invited his management team to join him in a victory lap. Paladin had just pulled off a major acquisition, the $20-million purchase of Labopharm Inc., and his crew had a habit of accompanying the boss on celebratory rides. The 70-kilometre route—considered only moderately challenging by the team of hard-core cyclists—took them out of the city and into the hills of Morin-Heights, in the Laurentian Mountains. It didn’t end well. The riders pounded their way through the lower Laurentians and had only a couple of kilometres to go as they made the long descent down the Mille Isles side road. Goodman was the second-to-last of seven riders to head down the stretch. Though no one saw exactly what happened next, his colleagues know he made it to the point where the road flattens out near Chemin Tamaracouta because that’s where they found him lying on the road, unconscious. He’d landed on his head.

He was wearing a helmet, but the injuries to his brain were massive. Ten days after the accident, he was still in a coma. Things got worse: Complications from the fall caused him to have two heart attacks and then a pulmonary embolism, followed by septic shock and double pneumonia. Doctors gave him a 10% chance to live—and told his wife he would likely remain in a vegetative state. No one predicted the triumphant return of Jonathan Goodman.

The coma lasted five weeks, but he came out of it with a slow, steady progression of physical responses that began on Day 15, when he opened his eyes—though he couldn’t yet control them and showed no recognition of his family. He had to learn to walk again and to speak clearly. A brain specialist taught him memory-strengthening techniques. Within a few months, he was able to chat with people and to walk his son—one of his three children—to school.

Today, he sits at the helm of his new company, determined to build another block-buster. The accident has left him not only chronically fatigued and prone to occasional memory lapses (“The next time I see you, I may not remember talking to you,” he says when we first meet in June) but also driven by a new mission: to show the world that traumatic brain injury doesn’t have to stop a high-performing CEO in his tracks. “I’m more competitive now,” he says, and people who know him well agree. Gideon Pollack, vice-president of business development with Claridge Inc. (Stephen Bronfman’s private investment firm), says his friend has always been a high-performing alpha executive, but he seems even more motivated to succeed since that day in the Laurentians. “I think he has more to prove.”

Goodman’s eyes light up when he hears that. “I don’t think I’m ever going to recover,” he says, adding that maybe recovery isn’t even a term worth applying to his situation. “I want to be known as the most successful brain-damaged CEO.”

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