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Grapevine abuzz with rumors about the Biogen Idec CEO search

Posted by Scott Kirsner  May 14, 2010 11:22 AM

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Lots of rumors circulating this week about who Cambridge-based Biogen Idec may be considering as the publicly-traded biotech company's search for its next CEO passes the four-month mark

Given that current Biogen CEO Jim Mullen is resigning under pressure from activist investor Carl Icahn, the big question about the CEO search, being managed by the recruiting firm Spencer Stuart, is whether the next CEO's mandate will be to sell Biogen whole-hog or in pieces, or to rebuild it. "The profile of the CEO you'd hire in those two situations is very different," says one Biogen alum now working at another Cambridge biotech. "If it were me, I'd be opting for the re-build. They have tremendous talent in R&D. But that group has always been a bit of a stepchild, as the company has reeled from one crisis to the next." The company hasn't had a top research executive since Cecil Pickett resigned last year

This executive thinks the odds are slim that Spencer Stuart and the board will pick an internal candidate. 

But several sources tell me that Biogen has been having a tough time finding outside candidates interested in the job, having talked to people like former Genentech executive Sue Desmond-Helmond (now chancellor of UCSF), ex-Schering-Plough head Fred Hassan, and Deborah Dunsire, who runs Millennium Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, now a division of the Japanese company Takeda. (A Millennium spokeswoman had no comment yesterday on whether Dunsire had spoken with the search committee.) 

But Dunsire would be an interesting choice: an MD who has run a public company, and could be tiring of reporting to far-off bosses, though Millennium does operate with a decent degree of autonomy.

"She's just waiting to be plucked out of Takeda," says Alison Taunton-Rigby, a Biogen alum who is now CEO of RiboNovix.

One local biotech recruiter mentioned the possibility of coaxing former Genentech CEO Art Levinson out of retirement; that'd be a long shot. This recruiter, who isn't involved in the search, said her money was riding on Biogen's next CEO being an executive plucked from the pharmaceutical industry.

"With all of the M&A going on in pharma, there's a pool of talent that's available," observes Vicki Sato, the former Vertex president (and a onetime Biogen research VP) who is now an advisor to Atlas Venture and a professor at Harvard Business School. "Since Biogen is an operating company with drugs on the market, as opposed to an early-stage company still developing its first drugs, the pharma experience would be relevant," Sato says.

When are we likely to find out the results of the search? Biogen Idec spokeswoman Amy Reilly would only say that "the CEO search is the board's top priority in the near-term. The process is well underway, and the board is confident that it will attract an exceptional individual." Are they considering both internal and external candidates? "We haven't commented on that, but the search committee has been actively interviewing highly-qualified candidates."

The board's search committee consists of chairman Bill Young, Bruce Ross, Alex Denner, and Brian Posner. (Posner and Denner are both aligned with Icahn.)

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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