Viehbacher, Germano--Epstein? Big Pharma execs, and the call of biotech

Sanofi’s Chris Viehbacher heard it and just this week Pfizer’s Geno Germano heard it too--but will Novartis’ David Epstein follow the call to biotech?

As you will know, Novartis ($NVS) announced an unexpected and major shakeup of its business this week as it split its oncology unit and its pharmaceuticals unit into two. This saw Paul Hudson, a veteran executive at AstraZeneca ($AZN) becoming the new head of the now standalone Novartis Pharmaceuticals biz, while Bruno Strigini will become the CEO of the separate Novartis Oncology unit.

But this left no room for the 6-year Novartis Pharmaceuticals vet David Epstein--a man widely respected across the industry, with many commentators shocked at his departure from the company.

For some time, there have been whispers that he was being lined up as the next CEO of troubled GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), as its long-serving chief Sir Andrew Witty is set to step down next March after being hit by weak growth and questions from analysts over its strategic direction.

Epstein told me that his future work engagements are uncertain at the moment. He said, unsurprisingly, that he has: “Lots of opportunities--but I want to take a bit of time to travel and reflect. I love building businesses that use innovative science to improve and extend lives. Biological breakthroughs are providing many such opportunities.”

When I said many would like to see him back in the life sciences field, he said that it was his hope as well.

Could it be GSK, or is there a hint of a biotech desire? Of course, there is no decision as of yet; but it would seem a step down for him to move to GSK--a company that Novartis gave its unwanted vaccines unit to in an asset swap last year that saw it gain access to the company’s cancer drugs--and one that in recent years has not been known for its “biological breakthroughs.”

But should Epstein move into a biotech role, which does yield those kind of breakthroughs, he would follow a pattern similar to many of his Big Pharma peers who have been exiled from the industry, only to find themselves drawn to the less political and bureaucratic but “pure science” roles that biotechnology can bring.

Just this week Geno Germano, formerly Pfizer’s ($PFE) global innovative pharma business head, landed the newly created role of president at major dealmaker Intrexon ($XON)--and is also on the path to become its next CEO. He left Pfizer back in February as it prepared for the (failed) $160 billion megamerger with Allergan ($AGN), and came as Pfizer too mulls over whether to split its business units. 

Nor is he the only former Pfizer exec to take this route: A year ago, Jose-Carlos Gutierrez-Ramos stepped down as the senior VP and head of Pfizer’s Cambridge-based Biotherapeutics R&D to run the MA-based startup Synlogic.

The biggest name in recent years to jump into biotech has been Sanofi’s ($SNY) former CEO Chris Viehbacher--who allegedly did not see eye-to-eye with its board and disliked the pull of French politics on the company. He had long championed biotech and set up its key partnership with Big Biotech Regeneron ($REGN), as well as investing $700 million in Alnylam ($ALNY), the Boston-based RNAi leader.

Not all have taken this route, however, with Pascal Soriot moving from one Big Pharma--Roche ($RHHBY)--to another, when he took on the role of CEO at the struggling AstraZeneca. He did, however, work with Roche’s biotech unit Genentech and help it integrate into its Swiss parent after its $47 billion takeover, so perhaps had his fill of biotech beforehand.

Epstein was formerly head of Novartis Oncology and has a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy, as well as the necessary MBA. In fact, while leading Novartis Oncology, the drugmaker itself notes that he built this business from “startup to number two in the world through six new drug approvals and more than 10 indication expansions.”

What will the future hold for Epstein? We will all have to wait and see, but the call of biotech may be getting louder in the coming months.