Biogen Idec’s New R&D Boss, Doug Williams, Spurns Corner Office for a Return to Big Science

1/6/11Follow @xconomy

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that had to be made, and they represented the kind of ruthless, rational decisions that all R&D organizations must make.

Biogen, he says, “needs to focus on making crisper decisions, and making tough priority calls across the portfolio,” Williams says. “We spent 18 months at ZymoGenetics when I was CEO doing exactly that. It’s something I’m familiar with and comfortable with. It’s something every R&D organization has to get good at.”

The job of chief scientist, Williams says, is essentially about making tough calls on which drug candidates to bet big on, and which ones to kick to the curb. Especially in a weak financing environment like today’s, companies can’t afford much waste if they want to secure more financing.

“You need to make sure everything you spend money on really provides you the greatest opportunity for success. You can’t go about things half way. You have to bear down on the programs with greatest likelihood of success,” Williams says.

Whatever decisions get made under Williams, he’s not the kind of guy who will work in some kind of imperious fashion. One longtime confidante of Williams, attorney Stephen Graham of Fenwick & West, described him in an Xconomy story in January 2009 as “calm, thoughtful, insightful and unflappable. As a person, he’s low-key, respectful and personable. He’s a leader who seeks and respects the input of others.”

Williams, after leaving ZymoGenetics, certainly had a number of other opportunities to do a startup, or possibly be a CEO again at a development-stage biotech drug company. Instead, he chose an opportunity to sort through a pipeline with 13 drug candidates in clinical trials, including five in the final stage normally required for FDA approval. “It was an opportunity where I could go in with a company with a great history and all the resources necessary to make a big impact,” Williams says. “Not a lot of companies have the profile of Biogen Idec.”

There were some personal attachments, too. Although Williams has made his career and raised his family in Seattle, he grew up in western Massachusetts. He got interested in medical science at a young age, as I noted in a 2002 Seattle Times story. His father had cancer, and he tagged along on hospital trips, intrigued with what the doctors were doing to try to save him. As he mentioned yesterday to the Boston Globe, Williams grew up “a lifelong Red Sox and Bruins fan.”

While Williams has never worked directly with Biogen CEO George Scangos, or the new chief business officer Steve Holtzman, the three executives all got to know each other on the board of San Diego-based Anadys Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ANDS). “For me personally, it’s an opportunity to go to work with a great company, but also with two guys and a management team I respect,” Williams says.

While Williams and his colleagues have a chance to pump new life into Biogen, it’s a loss for Seattle biotech. As I noted in a story back in November when Williams left ZymoGenetics, he’s one of the few nationally prominent biotech executives left in the Northwest. Bob Nelsen, managing director for Arch Venture Partners, said in November that “He can do anything he wants, from CEO, startup, to VC. Hopefully he stays here! I would back him any day.”

Williams intends to commute to Boston during the week, and fly home to Seattle on weekends, at least while his daughter finishes up high school this year, he says. But he will be house-hunting in Massachusetts, and plans to stop the cross-continental commute when his daughter sets off for college.

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