Biotech vet Westphal to exit CEO post of cancer drug developer Verastem

Robert Forrester

Verastem ($VSTM) has changed CEOs as the company seeks to translate stem cell discoveries into powerful new cancer drugs. Biotech entrepreneur and Verastem co-founder Christoph Westphal is stepping down from the chief executive post, and president and COO Robert Forrester will take the top job at the company and join the board of directors on July 1.

Westphal will become executive chairman of Verastem through the change, helming a board that now features lead director Henri Termeer, the former CEO and chairman of Genzyme, and Rich Aldrich, a biotech investor and founding employee of Vertex Pharmaceuticals ($VRTX). Westphal, whose 2012 compensation was $7 million from stock and option awards, is Verastem's largest shareholder with a 17.5% stake in the Cambridge, MA-based company as of April 25, according to a proxy statement.

Based on research from MIT biologist Robert Weinberg, Westphal co-founded Verastem in 2010 with the big idea of developing drugs that target cancer stem cells, which provide the early seeds of tumor growth. Westphal, whose previous claim to fame was leading Sirtris Pharmaceuticals to a $720 million sale to GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) in 2008, quickly took Verastem public in early 2012 before the company had established a track record in clinical development. And skepticism rained on the IPO party about the merits of the biotech upstart's pipeline.

Wall Street has not always been kind to Verastem. TheStreet's Adam Feuerstein dispatched a stock chart this morning that showed Verastem's shares were down 19.12% since its public debut, while the Nasdaq biotech group had surged 47.63% during the same period.

Verastem has placed its confidence on a focal adhesion kinase (FAK) inhibitor called VS-6063 as its lead drug candidate, which is in a Phase I/Ib study. The company plans to advance the compound for a rare cancer known as mesothelioma that strikes protective tissues of internal organs such as the lungs and has been linked with exposure to asbestos.

Forrester, a former senior executive of Boston-area biotech companies Forma Therapeutics (a 2011 Fierce 15 company) and CombinatoRx, will now lead a strategy that involves rapidly moving Verastem's lead compound into what could be a pivotal study in patients with mesothelioma.

"Robert's experience and expertise are perfectly suited to advancing our company through clinical development and creating value for shareholders, making this an ideal time to effect this transition," Westphal said in a statement. "As the largest investor, and with an active 10b5-1 buying plan, Verastem will remain my principal focus. Robert and I will continue to work closely with the Board of Directors to implement our strategy."

- here's the release