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Sanofi chief lauds Boston as leader in biotech innovation

Sanofi chief executive Christopher A. Viehbacher (left) , the keynote speaker at The Boston College Chief Executives' Club of Boston, talked with Henri A. Termeer (right) former chief executive officer of Genzyme Corp.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Sanofi chief executive Christopher A. Viehbacher (left), the keynote speaker at The Boston College Chief Executives' Club of Boston, talked with Henri A. Termeer (right) former chief executive of Genzyme Corp.

The chief executive of French drug maker Sanofi SA, which last year acquired Genzyme Corp. of Cambridge, said Tuesday that his company has established a presence in the Boston area because of its innovation ecosystem.

Citing the area’s dense cluster of universities, hospitals, biotechnology start-ups, and venture capital firms, Christopher A. Viehbacher told Boston College’s Chief Executives’ Club of Boston that “I think the most fertile environment in the world today is right here in the Boston-Cambridge area.”

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But he said there are risks to innovation, including budget cuts to the National Institutes of Health, rising health care costs, and the inability of big pharmaceutical companies to embrace the “disruptive element” of innovation.

“This is extraordinarily difficult to achieve in big companies,” he said. “In fact, we do everything we can to eliminate disruption in big companies.”

Sanofi paid $20.1 billion for Genzyme in a hostile-turned-friendly acquisition that was completed last April. Viehbacher temporarily installed himself as acting chief executive, working with former chief executive Henri Termeer to ensure a smooth transition before turning over the Genzyme reins to veteran executive David Meeker last October.

Since then, Viehbacher has launched a campaign to wring $170 million in cost savings out of Sanofi’s global operations, though the bulk of the cuts have been outside the Boston area. Sanofi is closing a New Jersey research lab, for instance, and moving some of its work to its Cambridge sites.

Genzyme last month began trimming an unspecified number of jobs from its own research and development operations. At the same time, the division has been hiring workers at Genzyme manufacturing sites in the state, keeping its Massachusetts workforce stable at about 5,000 employees.

In a sign of progress in resolving longstanding production problems, Genzyme last week said it had commenced delivering its rare disease drug Fabrazyme from its new plant in Framingham after winning approval from federal regulators. Genzyme had been rationing the drug, which treats the enzyme deficiency Fabry disease, since it discovered a virus at its Allston Landing plant in 2009.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.
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