How to Survive the Downturn: Five Questions With Boston Biotech Leaders, Part 2

1/16/09Follow @xconomy

Yesterday, we ran highlights from interviews with Alnylam CEO John Maraganore and Vertex Pharmaceuticals CEO Josh Boger, who were asked the same five standard questions about the future of the industry. Today, I’m sharing a second installment from conversations with Sirtris CEO Christoph Westphal, who responded via email, and Alkermes chairman Richard Pops and Jim Frates, whom I interviewed over breakfast at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. Here are the highlights:

Christoph Westphal, CEO of Cambridge, MA-based Sirtris, a unit of GlaxoSmithKline (via email)

Xconomy: What was the single most valuable lesson you learned from the last big biotech bust (the genomics-driven crash of 2001 and 2002), and how will having those battle wounds help you carry on today?

Christoph Westphal: The most valuable lesson from the last big bust is that biotech will rebound. The strongest companies will continue to thrive, and in the long term this will be good for the biotech industry. The biotech sector is on a cycle, and will be poised to become an even more important sector in our economy. One thing to keep in mind is how quickly economic circumstances can change, not only with downturns, but with unexpected upswings as well.

X: Every year, bankers like to say acquisitions and partnerships between biotech and pharma companies are going to pick up because pharma needs innovative new drugs, and biotechs need cash to develop them. Do you see this trend truly accelerating this year, and if so, why?

CW: In this economic climate, the trend of acquisitions and partnerships between biotech and pharma companies will indeed pick up. Big pharma is in an exciting position—they have the resources to help biotechs expedite their platforms and they need to bring innovation into their pipeline. It’s truly a win-win for both parties. At Sirtris, which now operates as an autonomous business unit of GSK, our budget is significantly more than what it would have been as an independent company.

I believe that collaborative initiatives that leverage expertise of biotech and pharma companies will grow in importance and impact. In addition to being the CEO of Sirtris, I just accepted a new role as head of GSK’s Centre of Excellence for External Drug Discovery (CEEDD), where we’re specifically working to build a network of alliances between GSK and biotech companies. We’re looking for new, world-class science to bolster GSK’s pipeline.

X: What kind of companies, technologies, and people will be resilient enough to survive this downturn?

CW: In tight economic times, it’s more challenging to raise capital because there’s less cash to go around so competition is even greater. Companies with only good ideas will probably dissipate. Companies that couple truly remarkable science with smart, experienced leadership will be the ones to survive.

X: Who would make a good FDA commissioner, and why?

CW: I have full confidence that whomever President Elect Barack Obama selects will be well equipped to make the revolutionary changes that are needed at the FDA.

X: What’s the most surprising impact of the past year’s economic turmoil on your plans for this year?

CW: What strikes me now is how fortuitous the timing of the GSK acquisition of Sirtris in June of last year was, in light of the current financing environment. The biggest challenge for any biotech or pharma company in R&D is one of resources. As an independent discovery unit of GSK, we’re fortunate at Sirtris to have extensive, additional resources to accelerate our current and planned discovery programs and clinical trials of our proprietary sirtuin activators.

Alkermes CFO Jim Frates, and chairman Richard Pops

Xconomy: What was the single most valuable lesson you learned from the last big biotech bust (the genomics-driven crash of 2001 and 2002), and how will having those battle wounds help you carry on today?

Jim Frates: Alkermes has been through a lot of ups and downs. One of the things important about our business model is that it’s diversified. We’ve been using our technologies and development expertise to develop a number of products. What we like is that we have a base business that’s profitable, driven by a product called Risperdal Consta, a commercial opportunity with Vivitrol, and a Phase III opportunity with exenatide once-weekly. If you have a diversified business, and you have capital as we’re in a position to have, those ups and downs provide opportunities to stand out as a more diversified company. You can’t avoid the storm, … Next Page »

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