Michael Ehlers, Biogen’s executive vice president of research and development, is leaving for a job in venture capital and an opportunity to lead a gene therapy startup.
Ehlers has been appointed chief scientific officer and venture partner of New York-based Apple Tree Partners. He’ll also become CEO of one of the firm’s portfolio companies, Limelight Bio. Founded in 2016 based on research from the University of Pennsylvania, Limelight is developing gene therapies for inherited diseases that can’t be addressed by current gene therapy technologies. Apple Tree said Ehlers will start his new roles on Oct. 21.
Ehlers has worked at Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB) for the past three years. The Cambridge, MA-based company said his last day will be Oct. 11. Ehlers’s responsibilities are now being handled by Alfred Sandrock Jr. in addition to his role as chief medical officer. Biogen also appointed Alphonse Galdes to serve as executive vice president of pharmaceutical operations and technology. He was most recently the company’s senior vice president of asset development and portfolio management.
In recent years, Biogen has turned its focus to neuroscience, a research strategy that began under former CEO George Scangos. The goal was to diversify Biogen beyond its core franchise of multiple sclerosis drugs. But those efforts have stumbled. Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab failed in late-stage testing earlier this year. And last month, Biogen announced it would stop work on another experimental Alzheimer’s drug after an independent safety review concluded that the risk of the drug, elenbecestat, outweigh its benefits.
RBC Capital Markets analyst Brian Abrahams said in a Tuesday research note that Biogen’s senior management told him there were no conflicts or issues that led to Ehlers’s departure. But the departure of Ehlers will likely continue skepticism about upcoming data readouts from Biogen’s drug pipeline, Abrahams added. As Biogen’s head of R&D, Ehlers likely played a key role in business development discussions. That means his absence could complicate efforts to vet new technologies and bring them into Biogen to diversify the company’s revenue.
Abrahams wrote that having Sandrock take on Ehlers’s duties “should enable the smoothest possible transition, as Al is very well respected by the industry and the Street, already has intimate knowledge of [Biogen’s] pipeline, and should be able to continue to contribute his perspectives to [business development] efforts.”