Sirtris’ Westphal Enjoying Life Under GSK Ownership; Hints at Positive Human Data on Next-Gen Drugs to Extend Healthy Life (and Still Partying on Fridays)

9/18/08

Sirtris is now part of pharmaceutical behemoth GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK), but the British giant has allowed its acquisition a unique dose of autonomy since it bought the small, Cambridge, MA-based biotech in June for $720 million. For those who still haven’t heard, Sirtris is known around the world for the dazzling potential of its drugs to lengthen healthy human lifespan. Christoph Westphal, CEO of Sirtris, says his company will have some exciting news to share next month about the first human tests of its next-generation drugs—which will likely make it even better-known. Yet, when I caught up with him last week, the news about its trials was just one of several insights Westphal shared about what’s been brewing at Sirtris this summer.

Xconomy: What are the perks of Big Pharma ownership?

Christoph Westphal: There’s actually a lot of perks. I think the most important one is we think it is much more likely we’re going to get a drug to market than it was before. And there are several reasons for that. We have a budget that we’ve just been given for the next three years, which is 30 to 50 percent greater than we could have afforded as an independent company. Secondly, we have an opportunity to leverage global GSK, so there’s a lot of skill sets and abilities and machines and scale-up capabilities. It’s literally dozens and dozens of things that we never could have done on our own that we can now do as part of GSK.

X: What makes Sirtris unique from other biotechs acquired by Big Pharma?

CW: Both GSK and we were interested in keeping Sirtris independent and autonomous, which is why we’ve retained our name, we’ve retained our management structure [no more board of directors anymore, of course], we had a strong incentive to retain our employees, which we’ve done, and really almost all decisions are made almost exactly the same way they were before. That may be a little bit different than some acquisitions, where quickly the company was no longer autonomous. Literally, there’s no one here from GSK, five months after we announced the acquisition. And they’ve been very hands-off in all of our decisions. I think they are very smart and careful and thoughtful. So we pitched them on what our three-year plan is, but they are basically funding us like venture guys would fund us or public market folks would fund us, saying, ‘Day-to-day decisions are totally up to you, but we do expect in the next several years you to generate significant value,’ which I think is fair.

X: How long do you plan to stay with Sirtris?
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