Barely a year after he was named head of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, former state senator Joseph Boncore has been ousted and will be replaced with the trade group’s second-highest executive, according to two members of the nonprofit organization’s board of directors.
In response to Globe inquiries, MassBio issued a brief statement saying that Boncore “is resigning as CEO to open a consulting practice and will remain an advisor to MassBio on state and federal issues” under its new leader.
The abrupt leadership change comes at a sensitive time for MassBio, which lobbies for the state’s biotechnology industry, a pillar of the Massachusetts economy. In addition to an ongoing slump in biotech stocks, President Biden recently signed a law enabling the federal government to negotiate certain drug prices for Medicare recipients, a change that some local biotechs say may deter investment in new medicines.
Amid such challenges, the executive committee of MassBio voted to fire Boncore as chief executive officer and replace him with Kendalle Burlin O’Connell, who was serving as president and chief operating officer, according to Edward Kaye, chief executive of Bedford-based Stoke Therapeutics. Kaye sits on MassBio’s 39-member board of directors but not on the executive committee, which has six members. He said he had no idea why the executive committee fired Boncore and only heard about it afterward. The matter should have been considered by the bigger group, he added.
“I would have thought they might have called a meeting with the entire board,” said Kaye. “That’s what surprised me.”
Another board director who also doesn’t sit on the executive committee heard that the ouster came in an emergency meeting Monday afternoon and that the vote was 5-0. That director, who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, believed Boncore had been doing a good job and didn’t know what prompted the firing.
“It’s a head-scratcher,” the director said. “I think the feeling was he wasn’t hitting the mark as CEO. I didn’t know anything was wrong.”
Boncore, a lawyer who was appointed head of the group in September 2021 after serving more than five years as a state senator from Winthrop, said through a spokesman Friday afternoon that he planned to step down by the end of the year and launch his own lobbying firm, with MassBio as a client.
“I appreciate my time as chief executive of MassBio and I look forward to working with Kendalle and continuing our shared focus on the critical policy issues that the biotech industry faces here in the Commonwealth,” he said in a statement.
MassBio chair Pam Randhawa, who heads the executive committee and is founder and CEO of the biotech company Empiriko, said in a statement: “Joe Boncore has established himself as leading voice on the critical policy issues facing biotech companies and the continued strength of this industry in Massachusetts. He will continue to lend that voice and expertise on state and federal issues to MassBio.”
Randhawa had helped lead what MassBio called a seven-month nationwide search that considered 150 candidates before ending with Boncore’s appointment.
Boncore succeeded Robert Coughlin, a former undersecretary for business development in the Deval Patrick administration who previously represented Dedham in the state House of Representatives. Coughlin was president and chief executive of MassBio for 13 years until early 2021, when he joined the JLL brokerage team as managing director in the firm’s life sciences industry.
Upon his appointment, Boncore said it was an honor to join the trade group and that he understood the importance of the life sciences industry. His noted that his twin sons spent more than four months in a neonatal intensive care unit after they were born prematurely in October 2019.
“I know first-hand how critical the research and development of the new treatments and cures are to the well-being of patients here and around the world,” he said.
His candidacy, however, raised concerns among industry observers who had advocated for MassBio to appoint a woman or person of color, particularly since the trade group, under Coughlin, pushed for more diversity in the life sciences workforce.
MassBio said at the same time that O’Connell, the chief operating officer who was elevated to president in 2021, “will work in partnership with Joe” as part of a “joint leadership team.” She would continue to oversee membership, programming, and other services and hold the titles of chief operating officer and president, the group said then. Randhawa said that splitting Coughlin’s titles of chief executive and president between two people ― with O’Connell continuing as president ― would demonstrate MassBio’s commitment to diversity at the top.
MassBio has a nearly two-decade tradition of turning to well-connected politicians to run the group. Boncore was the third consecutive current or former state legislator to run the trade group.
Coughlin succeeded former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran in 2007 when the latter was forced to quit after pleading guilty to a felony obstruction-of-justice charge. The charge stemmed from a court case concerning Finneran’s testimony about his influence and participation in the legislative redistricting process following the 2000 Census. Finneran had led MassBio since 2004 and was earning an annual salary of about $416,000, plus bonuses.
As the public face of the state’s high-flying biopharma industry, the head of MassBio has traditionally been well paid for serving as one of Massachusetts’ most influential lobbyists. Coughlin received more than $1.2 million in 2020 in total compensation, according to the most recent available federal tax documents. The group declined to disclose how much Boncore was earning.
MassBio was founded in 1985 and represents one of the most flourishing biopharma hubs in the world. Eighteen of the world’s top 20 biopharmaceutical companies have a presence in the state, including Pfizer, which in December 2020 won US Food and Drug Administration authorization for the first COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use. A week later, drug regulators cleared the second such vaccine, which was developed by Cambridge-based Moderna.
MassBio, which is based in the same office building complex as Moderna in Cambridge’s Technology Square, had an annual budget of $12 million and 25 full-time employees, as of September 2021.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.