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Vertex CEO Josh Boger Retiring In May; Matthew Emmens To Fill Role

(Update: The last three paragraphs were added after a conference call with reporters.)

Vertex Pharmaceuticals founder, president and CEO Josh Boger, one of the best-known and more colorful executives in the biotech industry, is retiring on May 23. He will be replaced by Vertex director Matthew Emmens, the company said late this afternoon in a statement.

Boger, 57, left Merck to found Cambridge, MA-based Vertex in 1989. Boger will remain on the company’s board, although Emmens will take on the trifecta of power roles as president, CEO and chairman of the board in May, the company said. Emmens has been a director of Vertex since 2004, and previously served as CEO of Astra Merck, and Shire, where he continues as chairman. He takes over a company with 1,300 employees spread among nine buildings in Cambridge, MA, another 200 employees in San Diego, and smaller sites in the United Kingdom and Coralville, IA.

“I am very proud of what Vertex has accomplished, and we now stand on the cusp of great clinical and medical success,” Boger said in a statement. “I welcome Matt, and have great confidence in his extensive experience leading companies through launches of breakthrough products, to take the reins and guide Vertex as we bring our innovations to patients.”

Vertex is on the verge of transforming from a traditional money-losing R&D focused biotech company—with a $1.9 billion accumulated deficit according to its last quarterly report—into one that needs to be a more fully integrated commercial operation. The company is moving ahead in the final stage of clinical trials with a first-in-class protease inhibitor treatment for hepatitis C, called telaprevir, which has shown an ability to double the cure rate of standard treatments in about half the time. The drug has an opportunity to exceed $2.6 billion a year in U.S. sales in 2013, according to analyst Rachel McMinn of Cowen & Co. The company is also working to finish developing the first oral pill for cystic fibrosis that can have an affect on the protein abnormality that causes the deadly lung disease.

This is a big vision, and a big commercial challenge, as Boger himself articulated last month in a presentation at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. He likened Vertex’s goals with those of biotech pioneers like Genentech in the 1970s, when it developed the first genetically engineered protein drugs, and Gilead Sciences in the 1990s, when it moved forward with AIDS medicines that made it possible for patients to take fewer pills a day. Ever the showman, he accompanied those historic examples, respectively, with the with the Bee Gees hit “Stayin’ Alive” and Nirvana’s classic “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Emmens, also 57, has 35 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, Vertex said. “In the area of hepatitis C, and also in cystic fibrosis, Vertex has the potential to transform patients’ lives and build tremendous value, and together with the employees my goal is to make this vision a reality,” he said in a statement.

(Updated material from company conference call.) Boger and Emmens discussed the move in prepared remarks during a 12-minute conference call, although they didn’t take any questions from reporters because they said they needed to brief various stakeholders like investors. (The early reaction from investors was slightly positive, as Vertex shares climbed 14 cents to $34.10 in after-hours trading following the announcement.)

The two executives first got to know each other when they worked together more than 20 years ago during Merck’s 1980s heyday as America’s most-admired company, Boger said on the call. The challenge for Emmens will be to apply the company’s innovative spirit to a different kind of problem—making sure its new drugs reach their sales potential. Emmens will help “take the company to the next level,” Boger says. He added, “I’m confident that 20 years on, this moment will feel as right as any.”

Emmens said he doesn’t see himself stepping in as a fixer. His life’s work, he says, is as a company builder. “I’m not here to mess with success,” he said.

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