Elliott Sigal, Bristol’s Former R&D Chief, on Life After Big Pharma

Xconomy New York — 

Less than a year ago, Elliott Sigal, Bristol-Myers Squibb’s R&D chief for nearly a decade, stunned the industry. After a lengthy run that saw Bristol morph from a slogging, multifaceted healthcare conglomerate with its fingers in everything from AIDS drugs to baby formula, to a sleeker, pure play biopharmaceutical company, Sigal abruptly walked away in April 2013.

“I envision an active retirement,” he said on a conference call with investors at the time.

Nearly a year later, Sigal is starting to show what he had in mind. Sigal is now dabbling in several areas of the life sciences world, from venture firms, to startups, to Big Biotechs. In January, Sigal joined investment firm New Enterprise Associates as a venture partner and senior advisor. It’s essentially a part-time gig that’ll enable him to advise NEA’s healthcare team on its investments, and in some cases help the executive teams of the firm’s portfolio companies. At the same time, he also began doing some consulting work for the research division of Thousand Oaks, CA-based Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN), the biotech powerhouse best known for its anemia drugs. He’s since joined the board of a recently-formed gene therapy startup, Philadelphia-based Spark Therapeutics, adding to similar board roles he already holds at Bristol spinout Mead Johnson Nutrition and the Melanoma Research Alliance, a non-profit group. More appointments may be on the way. And Sigal says he’s taking a long look at a different type of advisory role, one where he could help scientists bridge the gap between basic research and potential drug candidates—a translational gap that’s commonly called the “valley of death,” when academic projects can’t get the funding needed to become true partnership or investment opportunities for VC’s and drugmakers.

“I’m in my early 60s,” Sigal says. “I’m not done, except with a big operational role. And I love the biomedical ecosystem.”

It’s a return to the old days, in a way, for Sigal. He served on the faculty of the UCSF Department of Medicine before leaping to industry in 1992. Sigal rose through the ranks at smaller companies—Syntex (acquired by Roche in 1994) and later the genomics company Mercator Genetics before joining Bristol in 1997. He became Bristol’s chief scientific officer and R&D head in 2004, and is perhaps best known there for helping champion a plan to align the company with a number of biotechs through licensing deals and small to mid-size buyouts, an initiative dubbed the “string of pearls” plan. In late 2012, The Wall Street Journal called him the best R&D chief in pharma.

Still, as is the case for every R&D chief, it wasn’t all rosy for Sigal at Bristol. Some deals were successes, like Bristol’s $2.4 billion buyout of Princeton, NJ-based Medarex in 2009, which it can now largely thank for a leading position in the white-hot field of immuno-oncology. Others fizzled, like the $2.5 billion deal for Atlanta-based Inhibitex in 2012. Bristol was hoping for a gem of a hepatitis C treatment, like the one Gilead Sciences got when it paid $11 billion for Pharmasset in 2011. Instead, Bristol-Myers soon found out the Inhibitex drug had safety problems and bombed in clinical trials, leading to a big write-off.

Elliott Sigal

Elliott Sigal, former executive vice president and chief scientific officer of Bristol-Myers Squibb

Now that he no longer has to answer to investors for his every move, Sigal’s feeling a lot looser these days. He does a lot of work from his home in Princeton, is building a house on the West Coast, and says he can now spend more time with his family (“I’m very accessible, even when I’m physically there, I’m more accessible I’m told,” he jokes). But Sigal’s also adamant about staying close to biotech innovation, and helping other scientific entrepreneurs succeed. I spoke with Sigal about life after Big Pharma, the new science he’s homing in on, and the lessons he’s learned about biotech entrepreneurship along the way. Here are some excerpts of our conversation:

Xconomy: When you left Bristol, how did you plan your next move?

Elliott Sigal: I spent six months of reflection thinking about where a good place was to put some time. But from the beginning, I wanted to be an advisor to the next generation of leaders and companies, and to have a portfolio of advisory relationships that span R&D from the beginning through the large company. The best advice I got in those months was, to be successful, you have to have a certain amount of tunnel vision. This was my opportunity to bring the peripheral vision into focus. What is out there that maybe is … Next Page »

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