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Biogen picks Christopher Viehbacher, former leader of Sanofi, as new CEO

Viehbacher will replace Michel Vounatsos, who has led the Cambridge company through its Alzheimer’s drug controversies

Christopher Viehbacher's experiences working at large pharma firms and investing in biotechs at Gurnet Point may help him steer Biogen through a tumultuous time. The company faces potentially difficult drug launches and may need to strike deals to bolster its drug pipeline.Kevin Day/Biogen

After a six-month search, Biogen has picked a new leader to take the helm at a critical point in the Cambridge company’s history.

Christopher Viehbacher, who was chief executive of French pharma giant Sanofi for six years until he was ousted in 2014, will become the Cambridge company’s chief executive and president on Monday.

At Sanofi, Viehbacher oversaw the acquisition of Cambridge rare-disease drug company Genzyme for more than $20 billion and fostered a partnership with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals that led to the multibillion dollar asthma and immune disease drug Dupixent. Before joining Sanofi, he spent 20 years at GSK, formerly GlaxoSmithKline.

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More recently, he cofounded and helmed the Cambridge health care investment fund Gurnet Point Capital. Its investments include small startups focused on cancer drugs and food allergies.

His experiences working at large pharma firms and investing in biotechs at Gurnet Point may help him steer Biogen through a tumultuous time. The company faces potentially difficult drug launches and may need to strike deals to bolster its drug pipeline.

Viehbacher will replace Michel Vounatsos, who has led Biogen for almost six years. Vounatsos said in May that he would step down once a replacement was found. His decision came just as Biogen’s controversial Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm was pronounced a commercial flop.

Analysts once predicted that Biogen could reap billions from sales of Aduhelm, the first new drug for the memory-robbing disease in nearly 20 years. But questions about its effectiveness and concerns about its safety led many hospitals to not offer it to patients.

When private insurers and Medicare refused to pay for the drug, Biogen ultimately decided to dismantle its unprofitable Aduhelm sales division as part of an effort to cut $1 billion in annual costs. Layoffs ensued, but the company has repeatedly refused to say how many employees were affected. As the Aduhelm debacle played out, sales for Biogen’s core multiple sclerosis drug franchise were slipping, and continue to do so.

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Its second Alzheimer’s drug, lecanemab, seems safer and more effective, and could be approved by regulators next year. But even if the Food and Drug Administration signs off, the medicine could face intense scrutiny from doctors, much like Adulhelm did.

Viehbacher will face the challenge of righting a company that is reeling from the departure of key business and science leaders and its shrinking presence in Kendall Square — the region’s biotech hub, of which Biogen has been an anchor tenant.

Biogen did not grant an interview, but Viehbacher’s top priority will likely be shepherding lecanemab through regulatory review and building back up a sales team to commercialize the drug if it is approved.

Viehbacher, 62, is a certified public accountant who speaks English, French, and German. He began his career at PriceWaterhouseCoopers and subsequently rose through the ranks at GSK before landing the top job at Sanofi in 2008.

He set about revamping Sanofi’s scientific focus, recruiting Dr. Elias Zerhouni, a former head of the US National Institutes of Health, to lead the firm’s research and development.

The acquisition of Genzyme made the company a leader in rare disease drugs. A partnership with Regeneron led to the profitable drug Dupixent which earned the firm more than $5 billion last year. And a collaboration with Cambridge-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals gave Sanofi a foothold in hot field of RNA therapies.

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“Chris is the rare pharma executive who has a keen understanding of the complexities involved in running a multibillion-dollar global pharma business as well as a deep appreciation for the value of innovation,” Stelios Papadopoulos, chairman of Biogen’s board, said in a statement.

Sanofi’s board didn’t see things the same way. The board booted Viehbacher from the company in 2014 following disagreements over his “dictatorial” management style, The Guardian reported that year. Viehbacher’s plans for mass layoffs earned him the moniker of “the smiling killer,” and his move to Boston, away from Sanofi’s French headquarters, was not well received, the British publication wrote.

Yet investors seem to view Viehbacher as a positive for Biogen, and the company’s stock was up about 2.6 percent Thursday morning.

“We see Viehbacher as a solid choice and a natural fit, given his extensive prior experience in management of large international biopharma companies, his presence in the Boston area, and his continued involvement in biopharma R&D/innovation,” Brian Abrahams, a biotech analyst at RBC Capital Markets wrote in a note to investors.

At Gurnet Point, Viehbacher managed a $2 billion fund that’s remained relatively quiet about its investments in little-known companies.

One startup the fund invested in, Concord-based Tremeau Pharmaceuticals, is attempting to resurrect Vioxx, an older painkiller that that Merck pulled from the market in 2004 after finding that the drug could cause heart attacks and strokes. Another startup, Boston-based Corium, sells skin patches of the old Alzheimer’s drug donepezil, which many neurologists say does little to slow progression of the disease.

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Viehbacher serves as the chairman of the board of directors for local biotech firms PureTech Health and Vedanta Biosciences, as well as the California health and wellness company Before Brands. Viehbacher is also on Northeastern University’s board of trustees.

Viehbacher “plans to step down from most of these positions in the near term,” according to Biogen’s financial filing. He will join the company’s board of directors, but will not be its chairman.

Biogen will pay Viehbacher a $1.6 million annual salary plus potential bonuses, $11.2 million in Biogen stock options, and up to $16.8 million in shares depending on his performance after three years at the company.


Ryan Cross can be reached at ryan.cross@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @RLCscienceboss.