Christopher Viehbacher - The 25 most influential people in biopharma today

Out to eliminate the patent cliff

Christopher Viehbacher

Few people seem to harbor as much contempt for the dire impact of patent cliffs on the biopharma industry as Christopher Viehbacher, who has been a man on a mission since he took the reins at Paris-based Sanofi ($SNY) in late 2008 to ensure that the drugmaker never has to endure another patent cliff.

Viehbacher not only sits at the helm of the world's second-largest pharma, he also advocates for drugmakers of all stripes as chairman of PhRMA, using his position to advocate for changes at the FDA and elsewhere that could ease some of the well-known regulatory and risk-related pains the industry.

Viehbacher has made a series of deft maneuvers as part of a strategy to balance Sanofi's revenue stream and move away from the flawed pharma business model of generating a majority of income from a select number of blockbuster drugs. Most notably, he led a charge that took months to acquire Cambridge, MA-based biotech powerhouse Genzyme for $20.1 billion in April, a move that gave Sanofi scale that it had lacked in the biologics business and a leadership post in the market for rare disease treatments.

Yet, more than just beefing up biologics, Viehbacher's strategy for building a sustainable pharma business has also emphasized growth in emerging markets, vaccines, consumer and animal health products, as well as focused development of drugs for diabetes and cancer. With more legs on the revenue stool, Sanofi reduces its risk of falling if one leg gets taken out by, say, an invasion of generic competition to big-selling therapies. And Sanofi faces plenty of patent cliff woes. For instance, the company loses U.S. patent protection on blockbuster blood thinner Plavix and the blood pressure pill Avapro this year, The Associated Press reported.

"Above all, what I'm looking for is businesses that are not dependent on patents," Viehbacher said in an interview with the AP last year. "This is my fourth patent cliff in my career and I'm looking to avoid a fifth."

To keep the company's pipeline of new drugs stocked without breaking the bank, Viehbacher has steered Sanofi's R&D ship to get more of its products from external collaborators, in an open R&D framework, than in the past. An accountant by training, he understands the financial drain of an unproductive internal R&D group on his organization, and Sanofi can avoid the fixed costs of staff scientists via incentive-laden deals with drug development partners.

Yet Sanofi has suffered a series of stumbles in the clinic and heart drug Multaq has been a colossal disappointment, and all the strategizing in the world won't make up for a lack of new drug approvals to fuel growth at the company.

Christopher Viehbacher - The 25 most influential people in biopharma today