When the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi starts moving 2,500 employees from 10 sites in Massachusetts into a pair of new buildings in East Cambridge next month, visitors may notice something missing at the sprawling complex: any mention of Genzyme.
Eleven years after Sanofi bought Genzyme for about $20.1 billion, the parent company said Thursday it will no longer call its specialty care unit Sanofi Genzyme ― just Sanofi, as part of a company-wide rebranding. The move jettisons the name of a storied Massachusetts biotechnology company that helped transform the drug industry in the 1980s and anchored the life sciences cluster that made the region synonymous with innovation.
Sanofi is also dropping the second name of its international vaccines division, Sanofi Pasteur, which had been part of another company that merged with Sanofi in 2004. That unit, named after Louis Pasteur, the 19th century French microbiologist credited with saving millions of lives by developing rabies and anthrax vaccines, helped make Sanofi one of the biggest vaccine makers in the world.
“We want people to know you’re dealing with one company,” said Bill Sibold, executive vice president of Sanofi Genzyme, whose title on Thursday becomes executive vice president of Sanofi’s specialty care unit. “Rather than having separate names below the Sanofi brand, we will all identify with the Sanofi name.”
Sanofi, which is based in Paris and has more than 99,000 employees in about 100 countries, is also unveiling a new logo. It features the firm’s name in black, all in lower case. Two purple dots, one at the base of the “s” and another dotting the “i,” are meant to signify the start and end of a scientific quest, the company said.
To be fair, many people long ago stopped using the Genzyme name in Massachusetts (although it’s visible in the lobby of Sanofi’s building at 50 Binney St. in Cambridge). Sanofi is the state’s second-largest biopharma employer, with about 4,000 workers. Still, the Genzyme name’s official demise drew criticism from a pharmaceutical executive who got his start in the industry there and from a biographer of Henri A. Termeer, the legendary Dutch-born head of the biotech.
“It’s unfortunate for Sanofi,” said Edward Kaye, chief executive of Bedford-based Stoke Therapeutics, who worked at Genzyme from 2001 to 2011 and was one of a cadre of Termeer proteges who ended up running their own drug firms. “It’s such a storied name, with a history of commitment to innovation. I would have thought they would have wanted to keep that legacy going and take some pride in ownership.”
John Hawkins, author of the 2019 biography “Conscience and Courage: How Visionary CEO Henri Termeer Built a Biotech Giant and Pioneered the Rare Disease Industry,” said he suspects the late Termeer would have been saddened by the change, and that Genzyme’s 14,000 alumni will be, too. But he wasn’t surprised.
“There is little to no appreciation within today’s Sanofi organization for the exceptional culture and talent pool that defined the Geynzyme organization,” Hawkins said in an e-mail. “Few, and likely none, of the current Sanofi leaders knew Termeer or appreciated his or Genzyme’s mission. In fact, many of them would have been among the legions of Big Pharma execs who were chasing blockbusters in the early 2000s, disinterested in rare disease markets.”
But Sibold, who joined Sanofi in 2011 to oversee development of multiple sclerosis drugs in its Genzyme specialty care unit, said his firm is striving for clarity and simplicity, not abandoning its heritage. “You can change the name and call a company anything,” he said. “What really matters is what you do and the value you bring to patients, and that’s not changing.”
Of course, name changes are de rigueur in the drug industry, given the frequent mergers and acquisitions. Indeed, when Sanofi bought Genzyme, it was called Sanofi-Aventis. The second name was an appendage from an earlier acquisition that Sanofi soon dropped.
Drug companies sometimes alter their names because of things happening outside the industry. In one of the more unusual cases, Isis Pharmaceuticals, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based developer of drugs for rare diseases, changed its name to Ionis Pharmaceuticals in 2015 because ISIS was the acronym for the terrorist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The criticism of Sanofi, however, reflects the reverence of many in the Massachusetts life sciences for Genzyme and, in particular, for Termeer, who led the biotech from 1983 to 2011 and unexpectedly died in 2017 at the age of 71.
A towering figure in biotechnology, Termeer was “arguably the most impactful leader in the history of the biopharmaceutical industry, who harnessed cutting-edge science and innovation to better the lives of patients afflicted with rare genetic diseases,” John Maraganore, former chief executive of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, said in 2018. Maraganore led a committee of biotech executives who helped create a public square named for Termeer in Cambridge and dedicated in 2020.
Until the early 1980s, traditional drug makers didn’t spend much time or money on diseases that affect relatively few people. Instead, they focused on volume, selling as many drugs to as many people as possible. That meant taking aim at conditions that afflict millions of people, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart disease.
Prodded by families of desperate patients, Congress passed the Orphan Drug Act, which Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1983. The law gave companies financial incentives to develop drugs for conditions that affected no more than 200,000 Americans. The inducements included giving companies tax credits and the exclusive right to market new drugs for seven years.
The strategy, which Termeer helped develop, worked. Before the law, only 38 so-called orphan disease drugs had been approved in the United States, according to a report last year by the National Organization for Rare Disorders. As of July 2020, the Food and Drug Administration had approved nearly 600 such medicines, three-fourths of which exclusively treat a single rare disease. There are an estimated 7,000 rare diseases, that all told, affect roughly 1 in 10 people in the United States.
The first such drug by Genzyme that the FDA approved, in 1991, was Ceredase. It treated Gaucher disease, a progressive inherited metabolic condition that afflicts an estimated 6,000 Americans. Like Ceredase, which cost more than $200,000 a year for each patient, orphan disease drugs sometimes carry breathtaking prices of six or seven figures.
Inspired by Genzyme’s success, many other biotech companies sprouted in Cambridge and other parts of Massachusetts, as well as in other states. Like Genzyme, a number of those companies worked closely with patients and families affected by rare diseases, listening to their concerns and enlisting their support while pursuing drug approvals.
Another protégé of Termeer’s at Genzyme said she was surprised by Sanofi’s decision to drop the Genzyme name ― surprised that the parent company waited as long as it did.
“I thought they would have done it sooner,” said Paula Soteropoulos, who worked at Genzyme for 21 years before she left in 2013. “It’s been long enough in the sense that it’s not Genzyme anymore,” said Soteropoulos, who now chairs the board of Boston biotech Ensoma. “Genzyme, for me, was about the people and the approach to medicine. What Genzyme was to the biotech field and patient community ― that DNA has spread throughout the biotech industry.”
Regardless of what they call their employer, many of the workers at what had been Sanofi Genzyme will be moving this year.
Starting in mid-March and continuing through much of the year, 2,500 employees at sites in Cambridge, Waltham, and Framingham will be moving in four phases into two leased buildings with a total of 900,000 square feet at Cambridge Crossing.
“It makes us more visible externally, and it also allows us to work more collaboratively internally,” Sibold said.
When the office deal was announced in 2018, it was one of the biggest on record in the region and the largest lease since Vertex Pharmaceuticals rented 1.1 million square feet at two buildings on the Boston Seaport’s Fan Pier in 2011.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.