5:46 PM
Apr 27, 2018
 |  BioCentury  |  Strategy

The outsiders

Zerhouni: New perspectives, outsiders are needed to transform the industry

As he retires from Sanofi, Elias Zerhouni has advice for the biopharma industry: the traditional executive mold must be expanded.

On April 24, Sanofi announced Zerhouni would retire on June 30 and that John Reed, former global head of Roche Pharma Research & Early Development (pRED), would succeed him as global head of R&D.

Zerhouni was an outsider when he joined Sanofi in January 2011. He had served as scientific advisor to then-CEO Christopher Viehbacher since 2009, but he hadn’t worked his way through the ranks at Sanofi or any other biopharma organization. Instead, he had spent much of his career in translational research in academia and government.

He was director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) during 2002-08, where he drove the organization’s shift to translational research from basic discoveries with NIH’s Roadmap for Medical Research project, and oversaw the development of multiple public-private partnerships, including the Biomarkers Consortium.

Prior to that, he served as chair of the department of radiology and radiological services, vice dean for research and executive vice dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

At Sanofi, Zerhouni modernized the traditionally inward-facing and small molecule-centric organization, bringing it into step with new thinking that had already begun to reshape other big pharmas’ way of doing business.

“As a factor of change, you need to bring people with different perspectives into companies at regular intervals.”

Elias Zerhouni, Sanofi

Zerhouni started to make his mark as an advisor, consulting on the pharma’s R&D strategy. He cut 19 Phase II and Phase III programs from the pharma’s pipeline over 2009-12 either due to missed endpoints or because they lacked differentiation.

He also pushed forward programs that had been put on the back burner because they were thought not to fit with the company’s commercial capabilities, such as multiple sclerosis drug Aubagio teriflunomide.

He introduced new therapeutic areas, such as immunology, where Sanofi and partner Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. launched their first product last March.

He greatly increased Sanofi’s appetite for external innovation, and also expanded Sanofi into at least four new modalities. Small molecules now make up 44% of the pharma’s late-stage pipeline, down from 85% at the start of 2009. The company also has at least two partnerships centered on siRNA or mRNA-based therapeutics.

These decisions yielded at least four marketed drugs, and four of Sanofi’s five Phase III programs were generated via external partnerships started during his tenure.

Zerhouni thinks he couldn’t have made these changes if he’d come into the job as an industry veteran.

“Every organization has intrinsic constituencies and change is not necessarily welcome. So as a factor of change, you need to bring people with different perspectives into companies at regular intervals,” he told BioCentury.

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