Henri Termeer on Startups, Drug Prices, Getting Older (Part 1)

5/13/13Follow @xconomy

Henri Termeer could have easily faded away into obscurity a couple years ago. The biotech pioneer could have relaxed at his oceanside home in Maine, played a little golf. Or, if he wanted, he could have made loads of money at a private equity firm.

Certainly, he didn’t need to mess around with hungry little biotech startups nobody has ever heard of.

At 65, Termeer had more money than anyone could reasonably spend, thanks to the more than $100 million fortune he amassed at Cambridge, MA-based Genzyme. His place as one of the key mover/shakers in biotech history was secure. He will always be known as the guy who figured out how to build a great business by making drugs for rare diseases. Legions of his protégés had moved on to lead other companies, greatly extending his influence. Genzyme grew to 10,000 employees under Termeer’s watch.

While he could have stopped there, Termeer also had reason to write a different closing act to his career. The final days at Genzyme had taken a toll. The company he built and loved was caught flat-footed in a manufacturing crisis in Allston, MA, that erupted in June 2009. That disaster created shortages of Genzyme drugs that people depended on, sparking an angry backlash among patients and shareholders who saw irresponsible, or arrogant, corporate behavior. The crisis prompted the FDA to levy a $175 million fine for the manufacturing deficiencies it saw at Genzyme. Competitors exploited the opening. Genzyme’s sagging stock price made it vulnerable to an unsolicited takeover, which ended in a $20 billion sale to Sanofi in February 2011.

Two years later, Termeer sounds like a man who’s come to terms with the Allston disaster, and is mapping out a second career. He’s landed on a bunch of boards, allowing him to provide advice and insight, without having to shoulder all the day-to-day operating burdens of a CEO. He’s on the boards of MIT, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School, and gets his biotech fix on the boards of Verastem (NASDAQ: VSTM), Abiomed (NASDAQ: ABMD), and Aveo Oncology (NASDAQ: AVEO). More recently, he joined the board of privately held Moderna Therapeutics, shortly after it inked a $240 million upfront cash partnership with AstraZeneca. He’s advised a few startups, and gave away $10 million to Massachusetts General Hospital to start a personalized medicine initiative.

Henri Termeer

The guy clearly still has a lot of energy, and isn’t ready to walk away from biotech.

Last week, I spoke with Termeer by phone for a wide-ranging interview about his latest startup pursuits, and thoughts on some of the biggest issues facing the industry. Here’s the first part of the conversation. Look for the second half here tomorrow, as Termeer reflects more specifically on the turmoil at the end of his run at Genzyme.

Xconomy: You joined the board of Cambridge, MA-based Moderna Therapeutics a couple weeks ago, right after it got a huge deal done with AstraZeneca for its messenger RNA drug technology with $240 million in upfront cash. What attracted you to this company?

Henri Termeer: I was familiar with the company because I have worked with Stephane [Bancel, the CEO of Moderna] before. From the beginning, a year and half or two years ago when I got introduced to it, it was a very fascinating possibility. It kept on proving itself. It’s a different way to introduce proteins into the body through synthetic RNA. For me, it was about the people involved, the possibilities, the early-stage nature of it, the significant financial muscle behind it, and the local part. I do a lot of things in Cambridge. I can really be involved without having to sit on planes.

X: I saw you spoke to the Boston Globe a couple months ago, and you said something about how you’re free now and can get a lot more done. What do you mean by that?

HT: When you run a company, and build a company, you have many balls in the air. It’s similar to what I have going on currently. But you have the structure and discipline of a company when you’re responsible for it. It ties you down. You just have to do the work. You have to do the quarterly things. You are very intimately involved with any transactions. It’s an enormous, 24/7 kind of activity. Genzyme was continuously in motion. It was intense for 30 years.

I always had interest in the outside world. I was part of the Federal Reserve, and MGH and MIT and other places. But I did much less. I’d go to board meetings and would run some meetings, but it was different. I didn’t have any time then. Now, I have all the time, and I don’t need … Next Page »

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  • Dan Eramian

    One of the smartest CEOs this industry has ever had

  • http://www.facebook.com/jinpu.yang Jinpu Yang

    Some of his comments on drug pricing are quite eye-opening for me. I guess from many years of justifying high pricing for rare disease treatment, he had many useful insights! I am as optimistic as HT. Eventually, there will be a balance developed between the cost and the effect of the healthcare industry.