Chris Viehbacher leaps back into biotech as head of Swiss billionaire's $2B fund

Chris Viehbacher

As CEO of Sanofi ($SNY), Chris Viehbacher was always an outspoken champion of the innovation that could be found in biotech, even as it remained an elusive goal inside the Big Pharma. He backed up that belief with major partnerships with the likes of Regeneron ($REGN) and Alnylam ($ALNY). And now, 8 months after getting booted out of Sanofi by an angry board, he's getting back in the hunt for the best of biotech and the life sciences industry as the head of a $2 billion healthcare investment fund set up by Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli.

Viehbacher is staying put in the Boston area. He'll take the helm at Gurnet Point Capital based in Cambridge, MA. But in a coming-out interview with Bloomberg, he made it clear that he'll be jumping around all the big and small hubs in the U.S. and Europe in search of new companies to invest in.

"Science is progressing at an accelerating pace," Viehbacher said in a statement, "and the next few years will see a number of more transformative treatments, devices and technologies coming to market. I know Gurnet Point Capital will be at the heart of bringing those to patients, and I look forward to working with Ernesto and his team to make this happen."

Bertarelli is European life science royalty. He was the CEO of Serono--and grandson of the company founder--when it was sold to Merck KGaA. That deal left him with a fortune estimated at close to $15 billion. And he's maintained a deep interest in the biotech scene, setting up a biotech center at the old Serono campus in Geneva after Merck KGaA abandoned Switzerland in a company-wide reorganization.

Viehbacher didn't do a lot of deals at Sanofi, but when he did step up, he stepped up big. Sanofi's partnership with Regeneron was one of the most productive pacts in the industry, most recently putting the pharma giant in line as a pioneer in the PCSK9 business with a likely approval looming later in the year. And he invested $700 million in Alnylam, the Boston-based RNAi leader that's enjoyed investors' renewed enthusiasm for the field over the last three years.

But the ex-CEO failed to create a legacy for successful R&D inside Sanofi. He tried, and largely failed, to reorganize an unproductive research network in France. His buyout of Genzyme has had mixed results on the research end. An attempt to set up a cancer division failed, and the group was later jettisoned after his departure.

Asked once if he was intent on buying out control of Regeneron, he told a reporter that Sanofi "would probably screw it up."

Now Viehbacher doesn't have to worry about the Sanofi board, French politics or the French way of doing business at a large corporation. And he can devote himself to working with the kind of innovative companies that are enjoying an unprecedented heyday in the midst of a market boom.

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