UPDATED: Biogen R&D chief Doug Williams joins exodus to run a biotech upstart

Doug Williams

Biogen's high-profile R&D chief, Doug Williams, has heard the siren song of a biotech startup. Near midday on Friday, the Big Biotech put out word that Williams will be leaving Biogen to helm a fledgling, and unnamed, company. All that is known now is that Williams is the first member of a new company that will focus on cancer diagnostics and therapies.

Biogen ($BIIB) says that Alfred Sandrock, senior vice president and chief medical officer, and Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas, the chief scientific officer, will assume Williams' responsibilities.

Williams took the lead research role a little more than four years ago as part of George Scangos' new management team at Biogen. During that time he played a major role in one of the industry's biggest turnarounds, pushing new franchise drugs through the pipeline for multiple sclerosis as Biogen also expanded its pipeline in Alzheimer's as well as gene therapies.

Hope in an early-stage Alzheimer's therapy, BIIB037, had helped boost the company's share price, but Biogen stock was down about 4% on Friday after a note arrived from analysts at Cowen highlighting a big catalyst ahead on new data for this drug. Overall, Cowen analyst Eric Schmidt said, he felt positive about the drug but lacked conviction about how events will unfold in the immediate future. 

In recent months a slew of top research execs have left big organizations to take over biotech startups, which are seeing boom times as venture cash floods into the industry and IPOs continue a near three-year bull run on the market.

Briggs Morrison recently left a top spot at AstraZeneca ($AZN) R&D in favor of the small biotech Syndax. In making this leap, Williams also joins the likes of Tony Coles, the ex-CEO at Onyx who's now starting up a new biotech venture from scratch; Annalisa Jenkins, who now runs Dimension Therapeutics after a stint in charge of R&D at Merck Serono; and Jose-Carlos Gutierrez-Ramos, who recently handed in his leadership role at Pfizer's new R&D center in Cambridge, MA, for an upstart of his own. And while Chris Viehbacher, the former CEO of Sanofi ($SNY), was pushed rather than jumped, he's made the switch to running a new, $2 billion biotech investment fund.

Sandrock's rise in the company was accompanied by his plan to create Biogen 2.0, which has stripped out staffers in some groups in search of a lean and mean approach to product development. Those small cuts have sent shivers through the organization, but the company overall has been growing rapidly.

"While I am sad to leave Biogen I am excited about the opportunity to follow a real passion of mine," said Dr. Williams. "I am proud of the progress of the company's R&D organization and am pleased that it will be in very capable hands."

- here's the release