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

Xconomy Boston — 

Doug Williams spent more than 20 years working his way up from bench scientist to CEO, and long after reaching the top, a realization hit. What he wanted most was to go back to his true passion—getting his hands dirty in a big and strong R&D organization with potential to create new drugs.

“Having done the CEO thing at ZymoGenetics, what I spent an awful lot of time doing was talking to investors and raising money for the company,” Williams says. “Not that I didn’t enjoy it—I did—but for the next chapter in my career what I truly wanted to do is be back in the day-to-day, doing R&D activities all day, every day.”

Williams, 52, will still talk to investors from time to time, but he will certainly get a chance to ply his science and business acumen on a day-to-day basis as the new head of R&D at Weston, MA-based Biogen Idec (NASDAQ: BIIB). The company has grown into the fifth-most valuable organization in the biotech industry, with a $15.9 billion market valuation, ranking it behind Amgen, Gilead Sciences, Celgene, and Genzyme. Much of Biogen Idec’s value is based on its strength as the world’s largest maker of multiple sclerosis drugs. The company runs in the black, generated $4.37 billion in revenue in 2009, and has assembled a talented workforce with 4,275 employees at last count. The R&D budget was about $1.3 billion in 2009.

Despite all that, Biogen hasn’t been able to deliver a new FDA approved product since natalizumab (Tysabri) arrived in 2004. The lack of R&D output has prompted blistering critiques from billionaire investor Carl Icahn, who accused the company in 2009 of suffering from “failed leadership.” Not long after the public attack, R&D chief Cecil Pickett stepped down, and so did CEO James Mullen. Chairman Bill Young, moving on, said the next CEO would likely be a scientist. Sure enough, when CEO George Scangos was introduced, the first thing he said was that R&D had to improve. A few months later, Biogen said it was cutting 650 jobs, closing its San Diego operation, getting rid of cancer and cardiovascular research, and concentrating much of its effort on its core strength of neurology and immunology.

While cuts have already been made, Biogen still needs to start showing more R&D progress if it wants to thrill investors again. Williams, who I have been covering for almost 10 years now dating back to his days as the chief scientist at Seattle-based Immunex, comes to this task with a background that’s clearly relevant to a Biogen that wants to focus on neurology and immunology.

Williams got his Ph.D in physiology, and did a stint on the faculty at Indiana University before he moved to Seattle to join the biotech industry at Immunex in the late ’80s. He carved out his expertise in immunology and autoimmune diseases there, and was the chief scientist at Immunex when it introduced the groundbreaking drug etanercept (Enbrel). That drug is now projected to be the world’s third-best selling pharmaceutical with $8 billion in worldwide sales by 2014, according to Thomson Reuters.

After Immunex got bought by Amgen, Williams moved on to take senior R&D jobs at Seattle Genetics and ZymoGenetics. He was promoted to CEO of ZymoGenetics two years ago.

The experience at the helm of ZymoGenetics was a tumultuous one, where Williams laid off more than one-third of the staff, and made significant cutbacks to a once proud and sprawling ZymoGenetics R&D operation in cancer and autoimmune diseases. To Williams, those were cuts 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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