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Chairman Bill Young: Next Biogen Idec CEO May Be a Scientist

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the headhunting firm of Spencer Stuart to help identify candidates, and the goal is to hire the new CEO within 90 to 120 days, Young says. Mullen, while still currently a member of the board, isn’t involved in picking the successor, although he’s still working at the company to aid with the leadership transition.

While the CEO search is going on, Biogen has decided to wait a while to seek out a new head of research and development to replace Cecil Pickett, who retired last year. That position will stay vacant until after the CEO is hired, so the new leader can be sure to have an R&D chief that he or she is comfortable with, Young says.

Of course, I asked Young about how the board is working together now that Icahn’s two directors have had a few months on the job. He didn’t say much, other than a lot of predictable things about how everybody works together just fine. But when I asked if the board is taking on any new strategic shifts because of the input from the new directors, he offered an interesting answer that certainly made it sound like the board isn’t just trying to defend the status quo. Young was named to the Idec Pharmaceuticals board in 1996, when he was the chief operating officer of Genentech, and he has stuck around since San Diego’s Idec merged with Cambridge’s Biogen in 2003.

“If you look at the board, most of it is new. There are only three directors that have any length of service after this coming annual meeting when Jim [Mullen] and Bruce Ross step down,” Young says. “The only three with any length of service are Lynn Schenk, Bob Pangia, and me, who were all Idec directors. Everyone else has come on the last couple of years. The board is largely new.”

Exactly how receptive these new faces are to change, and what kind of change, will be one of the big storylines at Biogen Idec in the first half of 2010. While Young emphasized the company wants scientific thinking in a CEO, he also made clear he didn’t think anything was broken. When asked about the kind of R&D chief he wants, Young went out of his way to compliment Pickett, for doing “a really good job of rejuvenating things” in the R&D pipeline.

So who ends up getting the CEO job will say a lot about the board’s vision for the company. And Icahn’s reaction will show pretty quickly whether it’s a unified one.

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7 responses to “Chairman Bill Young: Next Biogen Idec CEO May Be a Scientist”

  1. Krassen Dimitrov says:

    Another interesting and enjoyable piece, Luke.
    Related, a great video from Icahn talking about what is wrong with Boards and management at a commencement address; must see:

    This is especially true in biotech where a breakthrough innovation can sustain a company for years, allowing parasite management types to mooch off until the patents expire and it becomes obsolete.

    I am very glad that Young gets the reality that only scientists are the ones who create value at biotech, and that he seemingly works well with Icahn’s people for now. I think he will be great for NanoString, where the problem for years has been an incompetent Board of Directors and senior management.

  2. Jon says:

    Yes, it is good to have a scientist in a lead role at a company, but the scientist also needs business training, either self-taught (see: Art Levinson, Genentech, acquired by Roche) or through degree programs.

    In contrast, bring on a scientist president like Bill Young and your company won’t have a pipeline of products because you fail to do the business analysis, or bring on the wrong products with no market demand. (see: Monogram Biosciences, acquired by Labcorps, no upside for investors)

  3. Krassen Dimitrov says:

    Some things you got right and some wrong.
    It is true that for 10 years at Monogram Young failed to deliver shareholder value. However, it is not true that he lacks business credentials – check his bio, he’s not a Ph.D., he’s an MBA. The problem there was not in the business model, rather it was the clumsy eTag technology from Aclara, which Young bought for $180M; this is what held them back.

    However, I don’t think Young is your typical empty MBA suit. I have talked to people who have worked with him and they are extremely positive, plus the fact that he gets along with Icahn’s folks is a good reference point. Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and the next couple of months will be critical. He is Chairman of two companies in search of CEOs – Biogen and NanoString (which I founded). What type of people he recruits will be very critical.

    With respect to NanoString, I have indicated to the Board that I would not tolerate another ignorant CEO, and I have suggested some mechanisms by which to vet candidates. If he fails in that regard, he will be held responsible, however, at this point I would rather support him and let him do his thing.