Biogen’s new CEO Christopher Viehbacher on Monday said he plans to bring a greater “return-on-investment type of culture” to the beleaguered biotechnology company, telling investors at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference that Biogen needs to better balance a drug pipeline that’s been focused on neurological diseases.
“I do think we’ll widen our aperture a little bit,” said Viehbacher, whose speech Monday was his first notable public appearance since he took over as head of Biogen last November. “The issue with neurology is these conditions evolve so slowly that trials have to be longer and are more expensive, so you get this high-risk, high-reward situation. I think we need to balance that out.”
Viehbacher noted the company’s existing medicines for multiple sclerosis and spinal muscular atrophy, describing them as a foundation for further exploration in immunology and rare disease. Still, he said he doesn’t envision any “radical left turns,” but rather a “redefinition” of what Biogen is known for.
The executive, who led Sanofi from 2008 to 2014, is joining Biogen at a critical moment. The company was forced to cut spending and lay off staff last year following the disastrous market launch of its Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm, which failed to win over doctors and insurers after its 2021 approval. Rather than becoming the top-selling product Biogen expected, Aduhelm has instead earned Biogen only $7.5 million in sales through last September.
While Aduhelm’s approval was controversial, Biogen also made missteps, such as initially pricing the drug at $56,000 a year — a move that sparked widespread backlash and was the focus of a critical congressional investigation released last month.
The setbacks with Aduhelm are particularly damaging as the rest of Biogen’s business is faltering, with sales dropping 9% year over year through the first nine months of 2022. The company’s multiple sclerosis drugs, for years a major driver of Biogen’s business, are losing ground to competition.
Viehbacher was brought in to help course correct. “My job, as I see it, is to restore the company to sustainable growth,” he said Monday.
His job will be helped by the company’s newly approved Alzheimer’s drug Leqembi, which was co-developed with Biogen’s partner Eisai. A similarly acting drug to Aduhelm, Leqembi could see greater commercial success thanks to more supportive clinical trial data. (In the near term, however, a restrictive Medicare coverage policy will limit use in the U.S.)
Biogen is also expecting to soon launch a fast-acting drug for depression that it developed with the biotech company Sage Therapeutics — a product that Viehbacher called the company’s “most undervalued” asset.
But Viehbacher hinted Monday that further cost-cutting might be needed. “We have $5 billion less of profit than we did in 2019,” he said. “That hasn’t completely percolated through the company so far.”
With Aduhelm, for instance, Biogen is running a mandated confirmatory study despite having essentially scrapped all efforts to sell it. “To be honest, that’s a question we’ll have to figure out,” he added.
Viehbacher has already made some adjustments to Biogen’s organization, splitting executive leadership of drug research and development into two roles. And he hopes to bring a more disciplined decision-making process to evaluating prospective new medicines, citing his time working in early-stage biotech since he left Sanofi.
“This need to have validation at every milestone before you can raise money is a healthy thing,” he said. “And I’d like to bring some of that actually into the company, particularly for our earlier-stage projects.”
While Viehbacher said his focus over the first half of the year will be on Biogen’s cost structure, he expects to look more closely at business development in the second half, noting opportunities to expand Biogen’s presence in psychiatry.