R&D exec Tal Zaks leaps from flagging Sanofi to fast-growing Moderna

While a long list of biopharma companies have been dropping the ax on R&D staffers in recent weeks and months, some of the top execs being shown the exit are finding that new doors are opening as fast as old positions are whisked away. Today, Tal Zaks underscored the bright side of restructuring, being named chief medical officer at Moderna Therapeutics a month after he was among 100 oncology R&D staffers who were ushered out at Sanofi in a recent reorganization.

Tal Zaks

Zaks had led the global oncology effort at Sanofi ($SNY) in Boston. But the pharma giant never achieved the success it had sought in the cancer field after Chris Viehbacher joined the company as CEO 7 years ago. Soon after Viehbacher was axed R&D chief Elias Zerhouni triggered the revamp in R&D, which included folding what was left of the cancer drug R&D operation into the global group.

FierceBiotech asked Zaks to assess the biggest hurdle he faces in the transition from Big Pharma to biotech growth company. Via email, he replied: "I think my biggest challenge will be to help Moderna and it's ecosystem of partners and ventures translate disruptive science with very broad biological applicability into a stream of new medicines, and to do so at a pace that recognizes the urgency of unmet patient needs."

Zaks is trading a pharma giant that has struggled with its in-house research in exchange for one of the fastest growing biotechs in the business. Just a few weeks ago Moderna inked the latest in a string of Big Pharma pacts with Merck ($MRK), getting $100 million in upfront and equity cash along with a promise of up to $450 million in milestones. Moderna has banked close to a billion dollars in venture and partnering cash since it was launched 4 years ago. AstraZeneca ($AZN) and Alexion ($ALXN) are included among its partners.

Zaks arrives as the company is following up on a pledge to add about 100 new researchers to its staff of 145. For a preclinical biotech focused on messenger RNA, the biotech has reveled in its cutting-edge image and fast growth as it heads toward the clinic.

"Moderna holds an unprecedented financial position among pre-clinical biotech companies, with $900 million on its balance sheet and strategic agreements with three industry leaders: AstraZeneca, Alexion and Merck," said Stephane Bancel, the exuberant chief executive officer of Moderna. "As we prepare to initiate several clinical trials in the coming quarters, we require an exceptional chief medical officer, someone with a track record of success in clinical development combined with strong business acumen. Tal is that leader. He has a unique ability to think outside the box and execute for business results. We are delighted that he chose to join Moderna."

Zaks, for his part, says he was "thrilled" by the move.

- here's the release