CAMBRIDGE — When drug giant Sanofi SA restructured its global business two years ago, its Genzyme division got a new name, Sanofi Genzyme, explicitly tying it to the French parent company. It also got new responsibilities and a larger “specialty care” portfolio covering everything from enzyme replacement to cancer and multiple sclerosis drugs.
Last week, Sanofi Genzyme — still the largest Massachusetts biotech, with about 5,000 workers — also got a new president, Bill Sibold. He’s the first one without any ties to the old Genzyme, an independent company that pioneered the rare-disease business model and catalyzed the local life sciences boom before accepting Sanofi’s $20.1 billion takeover offer in 2011.
Sibold, a 50-year-old Canadian native who played professional tennis briefly after college, previously worked for drug companies Eli Lilly & Co., Amgen Inc., and cross-town rival Biogen Inc. He describes his aim at Sanofi Genzyme succinctly: “We’re planning for growth.” And he cites “two things that are core to legacy Genzyme . . . science and patients.”
But his challenge won’t be the same as those faced by his predecessors, the legendary Henri Termeer, who built Genzyme into a biotech pillar during nearly three decades at the helm, and Termeer’s protege, David Meeker, who led the post-buyout transition. Sibold will be managing not only Sanofi’s fastest growing division — an expansion “engine” in the parlance of industry analysts — but also the expectations of its corporate overseers in Paris.
Sibold is quick to pay homage to Meeker, who hired and groomed him at Sanofi Genzyme, and Termeer, with whom he huddled last month about a week before Termeer’s sudden death. But he talks most enthusiastically about the strategy of his corporate boss, Sanofi’s new chief executive Olivier Brandicourt, who engineered the 2015 reorganization that shrank the sprawling Sanofi into five distinct “global business units” managing different sets of products.
“It’s been his vision,” Sibold said of Brandicourt, who significantly expanded the number of products and medical specialties under Genzyme’s umbrella. “One of the things Olivier believes is important is having focus. We’re a diversified human health care company. The whole idea is to be able to focus to be successful in each of these [therapeutic] areas.”
Sibold calls the division’s larger mission “a vote of confidence” from Sanofi.
Termeer, a towering figure in the biotech industry, set a high bar for any successor holding the top job at the company he built. Sibold was invited for a chat in the retired executive’s office on the Boston waterfront the week before his death. At that meeting, Termeer talked about the company’s history and exuded “pure passion to help patients, to solve a problem,” recalled Sibold, who never worked with Termeer. The two had planned to consult on an ongoing basis, he said.
Noting that Termeer ran Genzyme and steered its strategy locally, industry veteran Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former chief executive of medical device maker Medtronic Inc., said Sibold will play a fundamentally different role.
Any business group executive who reports to corporate headquarters is “a division head, an operator who will run the business,” George said. “There are big shoes to fill at Genzyme, but it’s not the same shoes. The key strategic decisions are going to be made in France, let’s not kid ourselves. They’ll give you a budget and say how much you can spend on research.”
Sibold earned his stripes at the Sanofi Genzyme division by building from scratch a multiple sclerosis business that has launched two new treatments for the neurological disease — including the oral drug Aubagio, which has become a top-selling product. The franchise, under Sibold, has emerged as a competitor to Biogen, the global leader in MS medicines.
Now he will oversee a broader line of about 20 products. Since the Sanofi restructuring, that line now includes not only legacy Genzyme therapies that treat rare genetic disorders such as Gaucher and Fabry diseases, but also drugs to treat prostate cancer and immunological diseases such as atopic dermatitis and rheumatoid arthritis, and help prevent kidney transplant rejection.
Sanofi has made a big bet that Sanofi Genzyme can draw on its heritage of innovation to shepherd a new generation of specialty care products onto the market, said Seamus Fernandez, analyst at Boston health care investment bank Leerink Partners.
Among the products in the works are experimental treatments for multiple myeloma, squamous cell carcinoma, asthma, and Parkinson’s disease.
Sibold “has a hugely important job,” Fernandez said. “They’ve taken all their specialty portfolio assets, where you’re addressing a smaller market, and they’ve domiciled them with the Genzyme division. The biggest challenge will be to sustain and maintain the focus on the legacy Genzyme portfolio, because they are profitable products, while advancing the new products.”
While all Sanofi Genzyme drugs are prescribed by specialist physicians rather than primary care doctors, they vary widely in how they work and address a range of patient populations. Cerezyme, an infusion to treat the enzyme deficiency Gaucher disease, targets a global population of about 33,000 patients. By contrast, the injectable rheumatoid arthritis drug Kevzara has the potential to treat about 70 million patients around the world.
Dupixent, an injectable drug for atopic dermatitis, a skin condition causing intense itching and bleeding, was approved in March by the Food and Drug Administration and is projected to generate annual sales of up to $5 billion by 2020, according to stock analysts. That drug, developed with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Tarrytown, N.Y., could treat as many as 300,000 patients in the United States and become one of Sanofi Genzyme’s largest.
Sanofi Genzyme priced Dupixent at $37,000 per patient, far less than the hundreds of thousands of dollars it charges for enzyme replacement medicines. An independent watchdog group, the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review — which the company consulted before setting Dupixent’s price — said “it aligns fairly with the added benefit it brings to patients.”
But because they sell specialty treatments for smaller groups of patients, Sanofi Genzyme executives can expect to be under a spotlight as a backlash against high prescription drug prices grows in the United States. Sibold acknowledges that he, like Meeker before him, will be called on to defend Sanofi Genzyme’s prices. “This is the responsibility of the company and the community,” he said. “We have to do a better job communicating the value we bring to society.”
The alliance with Regeneron is one of several partnerships that are becoming increasingly important to Sanofi Genzyme, according to Sibold. It also collaborates with nearby Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc., which is developing drugs based on a gene-silencing technology, and Voyager Therapeutics Inc., another local company experimenting with gene therapies. Sanofi Genzyme has invested in both companies, and Sibold won’t rule out additional deals.
“There’s always the potential for other partnerships,” he said. “We are looking to develop our pipeline.”
Sanofi, which has added hundreds of jobs over the past two years, is likely to continue expanding in Massachusetts over the long term and next year plans to move its headquarters from 500 Kendall St. to a new location on 50 Binney St., about a block away.
Sibold downplays the importance of the move, saying, “buildings are great but the focus for us is on patients.”Robert Weisman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.