Viehbacher repositioning Sanofi in fast-changing R&D ecosystem

Sanofi CEO Chris Viehbacher sat down with Xconomy's Luke Timmerman to discuss the pharma company's R&D strategy. And he had some interesting things to say about the future of drug research and the company's relationships with outside developers and scientists.

In Viehbacher's view, Sanofi ($SNY) has tipped the scales between internal and external R&D to about 70/30, with the lion's share of the work still being done in-house. He tells Timmerman that a better ratio would be 50/50.

"That fits with a number of trends in research," adds Viehbacher. "First, there's a lot of funding for new ideas drying up as venture capital is leaving biotech. Second, is that as we look for innovation, we look for where people are doing basic science experiments that are defining causes of diseases. What you are seeing is that a number of people in the value chain of research are specializing. Not everybody is trying to do everything." There's an "ecosystem" for R&D in the Boston area, he notes. And that's why Sanofi wants a big presence there.

That strategy also helps explain Sanofi's decision to join Third Rock and Greylock in the $125 million launch of Warp Drive Bio.

Says Viehbacher: "It was very much on the basis of saying we want to work with (Harvard University chemical biologist) Greg Verdine. Someone like that isn't going to come work for Big Pharma, but we liked the science he was doing. We have a strong interest and expertise in natural products, and he had a genomics screening tool."

Sanofi has been one of the leaders in the movement for a radical change in R&D efforts, criticizing the low productivity of recent years. But so far its R&D efforts have been marred by setbacks in the pipeline. Viehbacher has proven that he can talk the talk, but Sanofi has been rather unsteady when it comes to walking the walk.

- here's the full Q&A with Viehbacher