Biogen Idec taps industry veteran to lead its R&D

Seattle executive fills position left vacant since ’09

By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / January 6, 2011

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Biogen Idec Inc. yesterday said it has lured biotechnology industry veteran Douglas E. Williams from Seattle to head its research and development operations, a critical job that had been vacant since October 2009.

Williams, 52, officially starts Monday at the Weston-based company. He will arrive about two months after Biogen Idec, the state’s second-largest biotech company, unveiled a broad restructuring plan that shut down its research in oncology and cardiovascular medicine while intensifying its concentration on neurology, immunology, and hemophilia.

“As an outsider looking in, the steps that were taken made perfect sense,’’ Williams said. “That focusing step will be an important one for the company. The mandate is really clear, and that is to take what is a very good R&D organization and turn it into a great R&D operation. I think I can add firepower.’’

Williams, who will be an executive vice president at Biogen Idec, was most recently chief executive of ZymoGenetics Inc., a Seattle company bought last fall by pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. Williams previously headed research at another Seattle company, Immunex Corp.

He grew up in the Western Massachusetts town of Greenfield, and describes himself as “a lifelong Red Sox and Bruins fan’’ who is returning home.

Williams said his professional experience meshes well with Biogen Idec. “I trained as a hematologist and worked as an immunologist,’’ he said. “So this is the sweet spot in terms of my background.’’

Shortly after his predecessor, Cecil Pickett, retired from Biogen Idec, the company’s then-chief executive James C. Mullen disclosed that he, too, would depart. The research job, a crucial position at any biotech firm, remained open while the board searched for a new chief executive. George A. Scangos, who assumed that role in the summer — and also came from a West Coast biotech company — said filling the research post was a priority.

Biogen Idec also said yesterday that it has named Steven H. Holtzman, 56, to the new position of executive vice president for corporate development. Holtzman will oversee corporate strategy, business development, portfolio management, program leadership, and the company’s venture capital fund, all of which had previously been independent business units. He most recently had been chief executive at Infinity Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Cambridge.

With the two appointments and the restructuring announced in November, Scangos, who previously ran Exelixis Inc. in San Francisco, has begun to put his mark on Biogen Idec. The company is best known for drugs that treat multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Robert Weisman can be reached at