In Sunday surprise, Bristol-Myers' R&D chief replaced by lieutenant

Francis Cuss

Bristol-Myers Squibb has reached into its R&D organization to find a replacement for R&D chief Elliott Sigal, the latest in a string of biopharma research chiefs to find himself facing an early retirement. On June 30 Sigal will hand the reins over to Francis Cuss, a 10-year veteran credited with the timely integration of Adnexus, Medarex and ZymoGenetics, all snapped up in Bristol-Myers' ambitious expansion drive.

Sigal is a well-known figure in biopharma, named president of Bristol-Myers' ($BMY) R&D back in 2004. Over the years that followed, Sigal played a lead role in BMS's celebrated "string of pearls" strategy, bringing along key new therapies--with big hits recently like Yervoy and, more recently, Eliquis. And the company has been bullish about its late-stage pipeline, including a Phase III PD-1 inhibitor.

Elliott Sigal

The past year, though, has been badly marred by setbacks for Sigal and Bristol-Myers. Last year the biotech's $2.5 billion buyout of Inhibitex and the hep C drug 094 blew up in its face, with one trial patient dead and a number of others seriously harmed by the therapy, which was quickly deep-sixed. Bristol-Myers was left with little more than a very expensive lawsuit to deal with in the aftermath. And with Plavix--worth $7 billion a year--losing patent protection and revenues pointed south, it was exactly the wrong kind of news for the company to report.

Up until today, though, BMS hadn't mentioned that Sigal, 61, was even pondering retirement--a fate shared with a number of his peers recently. His replacement is 58. By one measure of productivity--the cost of a new drug approval--Sigal recently came out on top of a long list of biopharma R&D chiefs, besting a lineup of execs with much bigger R&D budgets to rely on.

The mix of the good, the bad and the ugly at Bristol-Myers has left analysts scratching their heads, sometimes wondering if the company would pull off another major buyout as it did with Amylin ($5.3 billion), or if its current weakness might spur some other company to mount a takeover. Whatever the real feelings behind the scenes, Bristol-Myers' surprise Sunday night switch included the standard display of thanks and confidence about the changing of the guard.

Bristol-Myers CEO Lamberto Andreotti

"Francis is a strong and collaborative leader with broad experience in both discovery and development," said Bristol-Myers CEO Lamberto Andreotti. "He has been a key member of our productive R&D team who, under Elliott's leadership, has delivered our strong portfolio and pipeline. As our company embarks on the next phase of pipeline execution, this is a natural time for Francis to lead our R&D team. Having worked closely with Francis since 2010 when I invited him to join my Senior Management Team immediately after becoming CEO, I know that he can ensure the continuation of both the leadership and strategy that have been the hallmarks of our success."

R&D chief has been a tenuous position in the biopharma industry. Roger Perlmutter was shown the door at Amgen ($AMGN), only to find himself taking over form Merck's ($MRK) Peter Kim, who failed to deliver on a late-stage pipeline of any real value. And AstraZeneca ($AZN) also showed an R&D leader, Martin Mackay, to the exits recently after racking up a string of pipeline disasters.

- here's the press release