How Biogen Idec Overhauled R&D Under Doug Williams

Xconomy Boston — 

Biogen Idec took heat for years from shareholders who accused it of bumbling in the R&D department. But a little over a year ago, the Weston, MA-based biotech company (NASDAQ: BIIB) brought in a new guy to run research and development, and—presto!—a few months later the new product engine was perceived as world-class once again.

It would be a gross oversimplification to say that Doug Williams walked in, waved a magic wand, and cured all that ailed Biogen’s research and development operation. But in a little more than a year as executive vice president of R&D, Williams—alongside CEO George Scangos—has performed major surgery on the company’s pipeline, cutting 17 R&D programs and increasing the company’s bets on programs it believes have a chance to be market leaders. Some drug candidates were ditched because competitors appeared to beat Biogen to the punch, some didn’t appear differentiated enough from rivals, or their patent life appeared to be fast running out, Williams says.

Many years will have to go by before a verdict can be reached on whether this strategy will pan out, but investors are more bullish now about Biogen’s pipeline than at any time in recent memory. Biogen’s market value has shot up from $15.9 billion in January 2011, when Williams joined the company, to about $28 billion at yesterday’s close of trading. Much of the rise is based on the prospects of BG-12, an oral pill for multiple sclerosis, which many analysts expect will strengthen the company’s position as the world’s leading maker of MS drugs for years to come. That drug was in-licensed to Biogen long before Williams arrived, but now it’s his job to lead the development teams that push it across the finish line of FDA approval. If that drug gets the regulatory green light, it will be Biogen’s first new FDA approved drug since natalizumab (Tysabri) in 2004, and it could add $1.4 billion in sales in 2015, according to Robert W. Baird analyst Chris Raymond.

Williams is quick to admit that he’s fortunate that his predecessors in-licensed BG-12 and did a good job of designing clinical trials. He says he’s excited to be part of the team looking to make the most of that important new drug and what he hopes will be several others in the works.

Doug Williams

“I feel like I’ve got the best job in biotech,” Williams says. “It’s exciting to see what’s happening here, with all the changes that have been implemented, and the success that the company is realizing. It’s great for people who have been in the trenches, working hard, under situations where the view of the company wasn’t justified. It’s nice to see it pay off.”

Williams, who will be one of the featured speakers at an Xconomy life sciences event in Boston April 4, offered an inside look at what he’s been working on to revamp Biogen’s R&D processes and culture since he arrived.

The story of Biogen’s overhaul really started when Scangos took the helm as CEO back in July 2010. One of his first major acts, in November 2010, was to cut 650 jobs, and get rid of Biogen’s R&D in cancer and cardiovascular diseases, while concentrating on core strengths in neurology, autoimmunity, and hemophilia.

Williams arrived a couple months later to continue what Scangos had started, by doing a deep review of Biogen’s R&D portfolio, program by program. He saw a number of drug candidates in the … Next Page »

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