Passing the baton

Challenges and opportunities for Novartis’ CEO designate Narasimhan

When he takes the helm as CEO of Novartis AG in January, Vasant Narasimhan will inherit a business that is still struggling to plug the revenue hole from cancer drug Gleevec imatinib going off patent in February 2016.

The pharma’s big bet on heart failure drug Entresto sacubitril/valsartan, launched in 2015, is dogged by slow uptake, and the Alcon Inc. eye care business fully acquired in 2011 is declining.

Moreover, all the company’s newest launches face, or soon will face, competition from products with similar or better efficacy, including autoimmune drug Cosentyx secukinumab, launched in 2015, and even the first-to-market chimeric antigen receptor T cell therapy Kymriah tisagenlecleucel.

According to public comments by Narasimhan and outgoing CEO Joe Jimenez, as well as BioCentury’s off-the-record discussions with former Novartis executives, one of the new CEO’s priorities will be determining whether Novartis should remain diversified across innovative medicines, eye care devices and generics.

Another will be determining how best to grow the innovative medicines pipeline, potentially scrapping some programs in favor of new disease areas where Novartis could be a leader.

Narasimhan, who is currently the pharma’s CMO, has already staked out liver diseases and ophthalmics as areas where he wants to add more assets. The pharma’s discovery engine, Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR), is building a portfolio of immuno-oncology candidates.

Narasimhan also has made it clear that Novartis will expand its digital health programs to gain efficiencies in clinical trial execution and drug discovery and development. This could help the pharma identify differentiated programs early and speed them through the clinic while quickly killing others.

“Vas is the right choice to lead Novartis on our expected next growth phase.”

Joerg Reinhardt, Novartis

Tackling new diseases and making development more efficient will require rebuilding the senior ranks of the R&D organization. In January 2016, Novartis began a dramatic restructuring aimed at increasing operating margins by consolidating functions. More than 30 R&D executives, including SVPs, VPs and heads of global development in core therapeutic areas, have left.

Novartis has announced replacements for a minority of these positions. It did not respond to inquiries about which remain empty.

Narasimhan is the only R&D veteran and one of only two trained physicians on Novartis’ 11-member executive committee. Moreover, he is one of 10 members who have sat on the committee for three years or less. So much fresh blood could present an opportunity to transform

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