Playing the pharma-to-biotech executive shuffle: The lure of raw science

When I first started being a biopharma reporter back in the recession period of 2009 when Pfizer and Merck were in the midst of megamergers, I remember asking my then-editor a question that really irked him.

A few weeks after getting to grips with the industry, doing interviews and writing up news stories, I saw, or thought I saw, a pattern: The real innovation seemed to be done by these smaller startups with fewer staffers, riskier propositions and often all-or-nothing approach with a single asset or platform.

At the time, many of these biotech companies were being born from parents with young children who have incurable diseases using their own wealth, pull and determination to find a way to help their families and others.

Big Pharmas, meanwhile, looked like large conglomerates with huge sales and marketing teams that, for the most part, seemed to be buying innovation from these smaller biotechs, either through M&A or collaborations.

That’s not to say many big and important drugs haven’t been developed in-house by pharmas, but many of the biggest-selling and innovative drugs have come from biotech (Gilead and Pharmasset, Roche and Genentech, to name but a few), and I couldn’t help but think that pharma struggled to hold a candle in terms of innovation from these band of gutsy startups.

I was immediately admonished for this view, but in the past decade, I think it was still largely right, and it explains why I now write and edit for a biotech publication. (It’s also Fierce 15 time, which cements my love of life science.)

And, it seems, many pharma execs feel the same, because they keep leaving the world of Big Pharma—with its tens of thousands of employees, seemingly infinite pockets and HR departments that dwarf most biotechs’ full roster of workers—to join or run companies working out of a small office in Massachusetts or California with several dozen researchers and typically less than a few dozen million dollars to play with.   

Pharma jobs are hard; many have an ever-watchful eye on the CEO position, but to be in the big leagues it’s pretty cutthroat. Some, especially those with a researcher’s past, feel like a cog in the machine and want to get back to “raw” science (an explanation I have heard many times over the years). They want to be back on the ground working on cutting-edge medical tech that could prove to be a major breakthrough, and you get to say you was there when we cured this disease or changed the lives of these rare disease patients.

Biotechs are more than happy to take these seasoned execs into their arms. The allure to pharma, however, is still strong, especially from those with big biologic units under their belt that have exciting next-generation drugs on the horizon.

Biotech's Chutes and Ladders

So, how is 2019 shaping up with the executive musical chairs? Well, we’ve seen major moves from a series of Big Pharmas, including: Sanofi, AstraZeneca, Roche, Gilead Sciences, Novartis, Amgen and GlaxoSmithKline, with a few also coming out of the FDA and into the "dark side," as many hope new faces and new ideas will bring a shakeup to old R&D practices.

Let’s begin with AstraZeneca and its biologics arms MedImmune, which have seen the most movement. In April, the unit announced that Lisa Anson, head of the British pharma trade group the ABPI and formerly AZ’s U.K. president, became the new CEO of struggling British cancer and fibrosis biotech Redx.

Badrul Chowdhury
Badrul Chowdhury

This was hot on the heels of a big move for the FDA’s Badrul Chowdhury, who recently made critical marks against Eli Lilly and Incyte's long-delayed baricitinib. He's now senior vice president for research and development at Medimmune as well as head of its innovative medicine early development unit focused on respiratory, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. This caps off a 21-year stint at the U.S. regulator.

AstraZeneca has history in turning to the FDA, as in the last year it also poached Sarah Pope Miksinski, former acting director of CDER’s office of new drug products, and Geoffrey Kim, director of the center’s division of oncology products.

Miksinski has served as AZ’s senior director for global regulatory affairs since February, while Kim was named vice president of oncology and head of oncology strategic collaborations last July.

But what the Lord giveth, He taketh away as troubled Immunomedics, which saw a potential $2 billion deal with Seattle Genetics scrapped last year, stole away AZ’s former SVP and head of immuno-oncology, global medicines development Robert Iannone, M.D. He is now head of R&D and CMO at the biotech, leaving behind his work on AZ’s flagship I-O drug Imfinzi (durvalumab).

Elias Zerhouni
Turning south to France, we also got news today that Sanofi’s longtime R&D lead Elias Zerhouni, M.D., retired from the Big Pharma in June, having been at the company for nine years.

He’s replaced by John Reed, M.D., Ph.D., formerly head of Roche’s pharma research and early development (pRED) unit. He announced in early March he was leaving this position, which he had held for five years, for “personal reasons,” though turned up at Sanofi six weeks later. Roche promoted William Pao, M.D., Ph.D., who headed up oncology discovery and translational research at pRED, to the top job in Reed’s absence.

And Roche/Genentech also announced the retirement of its decade-long veteran Sandra Horning, who will leave as chief medical officer at the end of the year, replaced by Eli Lilly’s Levi Garraway, who left his former employer in August after running its cancer research work.

Sandra Horning

Sanofi also saw the departure in the spring of Philip Just Larsen, M.D., Ph.D., its former diabetes research chief and chief scientific for its Frankfurt hub, who went over to Germany’s Grünenthal as its new CSO.

Roche saw GlaxoSmithKline raid its R&D alumni cupboard again when, earlier this year, it hired Kevin Sin, formerly at Roche’s major biologics arm Genentech, where he was VP and global head of oncology business development. GSK is hoping Sin in a similar role can help spur on its pipeline play as the British Big Pharma’s R&D metamorphosis continues.

This also comes around five months after another former Roche and Calico vet Hal Barron became the new CSO and research chief at GSK, in a coup for CEO Emma Walmsley. But this saw no room at the inn for six-year research chief Patrick Vallance, who was out the door for a new role as a U.K. government science adviser.

And GSK also lost David Rubenstein, M.D., Ph.D., who had been working at GSK’s dermatology subsidiary Stiefel, during which time he held the title of VP of dermatology, discovery and preclinical development. He moved to become skin disease specialist Dermavant Sciences’ new CSO, part of the "Vant" family of Roivant companies (and where he will hope to have a better time of it than David Hung).

The U.K.-based Pharma also lost Nina Church, who in June moved over to Verona as executive director of global clinical development. The appointment of Church is part of Verona’s efforts to prepare for phase 3 development of ensifentrine in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Church spent 15 years at GSK, rising to the rank of global operations director for COPD, before being affected by its retreat from R&D in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. The fallout from the cuts is still being felt (Church is in fact part of a lawsuit accusing GSK of failing to pay severance benefits), but the positive for other companies was that a lot of respiratory R&D talent became available.

Novartis’ CEO Vas Narasimhan, M.D., also persuaded John Tsai, M.D., to fill the vacant CMO role (that was left open by his promotion to chief) at the Swiss major. Tsai comes from Amgen, where he was CMO for less than a year, with his career stretching back 18 years across the likes of Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

And there is Kite Pharma’s former CMO David Chang. On the heels of its buyout from Gilead last year, Chang announced this year that he would become CEO of Allogene Therapeutics, which started life with a massive $300 million series A round and 17 off-the-shelf CAR-T assets licensed from Pfizer.

Parent company Gilead also lost its clinical director of cancer research, Henry Adewoye, M.D., who moved over to Compugen, where he serves as CMO. And finally, Gilead also saw its long-serving Norbert Bischofberger step down from his post of EVP of R&D and CSO, as the Big Biotech promoted John McHutchison, M.D., to the top job.

And it’s only August! Expect more to come as we head into a new decade.