As New Sanofi CEO Starts, Viehbacher’s Biotech Fingerprints Abound

Xconomy Boston — 

After the abrupt firing of former CEO Chris Viehbacher last fall, Sanofi (NYSE: SNY) has finally named a new chief executive. The Paris-based global pharma has tapped for the job native Frenchman Olivier Brandicourt (pictured), the current top executive of Bayer Healthcare.

On April 2, Brandicourt takes the reins of a company with roughly the same market value as Bayer. In the $115 billion to $130 billion range, both are half the size of healthcare giants Pfizer (NYSE: PFE), Novartis (NYSE: NVS), and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ).

Sanofi leans heavily on its franchise of diabetes products, an area subject to tough competition from the likes of Novo Nordisk and pricing threats from payers. The day before he was ousted by the board, Viehbacher had announced that the diabetes franchise would not grow in 2015.

Sanofi chairman Serge Weinberg told Bloomberg Business today that Bandricourt will focus on product launches in 2015 and beyond, with the U.S. “high on the priority list.”

Under Viehbacher, a German-Canadian, Sanofi made a series of bold biotech bets—many of them in Boston, where Viehbacher said in 2014 very publicly he would move. Red Sox owner John Henry welcomed the news. But it reinforced fears among French workers and politicians that Sanofi, a conglomeration of several companies, many with deep historical French ties, would shift its center of gravity further toward the U.S. and away from France.

Brandicourt will be based in Paris, according to Weinberg. It remains to be seen if he maintains the same aggressive deal-making, and if so, where he places his bets. Here are Sanofi’s biotech highlights of recent years:

—The whopper was Sanofi’s $20 billion purchase of Genzyme in 2011 after months of battle. Other large pharmas have dabbled in rare disease development, or even made surgical strikes for products and smaller companies. But the midsize Sanofi bet a massive sum on Genzyme for its enzyme replacement drugs and other products in oncology, autoimmune disease, and tissue repair. (The oncology group recently announced job cuts amid a broader restructuring.)

—Before the Genzyme acquisition, Sanofi inked in 2009 a complicated, long-term collaboration with Tarrytown, NY-based Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: REGN). It was an extension of an ongoing partnership—with Sanofi already owning 19.9 percent of Regeneron—and added an ambitious goal to put 20 to 30 antibody products into clinical trials by 2017. Sanofi agreed to pay $160 million in annual R&D fees to Regeneron during that period. In effect, the deal put Sanofi’s antibody development into the hands of one company. The marriage has paid off so far, with their one commercial product, aflibercept (Zaltrap), approved for metastatic colon cancer. (In a different form, aflibercept has also been approved for eye diseases—but with Bayer as the marketing partner.)

A bigger payoff could come later this year, with Sanofi and Regeneron waiting on a July regulatory decision to approve alirocumab (Praluent), a cholesterol-lowering treatment expected to compete heavily in a large market.

—One of Sanofi’s largest bets on a biotech startup was its 2012 deal with Warp Drive Bio, of Cambridge, MA. It joined with Third Rock Ventures and Greylock Partners to put $125 million into Warp Drive, and agreed to buy the startup at an undisclosed, prenegotiated price if certain milestones were met. Warp Drive, which developed an engine to sequence the genomes of microbes hidden in plants and soil, has made little news since that announcement. Harvard University chemical biologist Greg Verdine was named CEO in July 2013.

—In early 2014, Genzyme made a $700 million investment in Cambridge-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALNY) to grab partial rights to several of Alnylam’s RNA interference drugs for rare diseases. That deal included rights in Europe to Alnylam’s most advanced prospect, patisiran, which is in Phase 3 testing.

—Last week, Genzyme hooked up with Cambridge, MA-based Voyager Therapeutics, paying $100 million upfront to pursue gene therapies for several neurological diseases. Genzyme’s gene therapy work stretches back more than two decades.

—-Over the past few years, Sanofi has also made various deals with and investments in biotech startups like South San Francisco, CA-based MyoKardia, Cambridge-based Unum Therapeutics, and Selecta Biosciences.

—Ben Fidler contributed to this report