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Stand Up to “Bully” Trump: Bio CEOs Levin, Holtzman Call to Their Peers

Xconomy Boston — 

Biotech CEOs Jeremy Levin and Steve Holtzman have watched the violence in Charlottesville, VA, and its continuing aftermath with disgust. But they aren’t just upset about the rally, the violence and death, and President Trump’s equivocating blame of “many sides.” Levin, of Ovid Therapeutics (NASDAQ: OVID), and Holtzman, of Decibel Therapeutics, have been disappointed with their peers.

Yes, Merck (NYSE: MRK) CEO Ken Frazier stepped down from Trump’s manufacturing advisory council to protest the president’s response—others followed suit and the council has been disbanded. But the life science industry has largely been silent.

Holtzman and Levin (pictured) penned a short op-ed last week for the Timmerman Report, outlining some of their grievances. They said industry silence stemmed from fear of White House retribution in the fight over drug pricing, or in negotiations to lower taxes and repatriate offshore cash—two big items on the industry wish list. “But at what cost to the industry’s soul?” they wrote. “At what point does the desire for a seat at the table become appeasement?”

Xconomy wanted to hear more from them, including what steps the industry should take next. We spoke with Levin and Holtzman earlier this week.

“It should not have taken racism and Nazism, or a failure to condemn them, for people in our industry to raise their voice,” says Holtzman, a former Millennium Pharmaceuticals and Infinity Pharmaceuticals executive. “I was horrified.”

There will be more chances for healthcare leaders to, as Holtzman says, “step up” by speaking out on Affordable Care Act reform, crackdowns on immigration, which the life science industry needs for part of its workforce, and other issues. Charlottesville, and Frazier’s response to it, shined a light on the effects business leaders can have when they take a stand. What more can and should life sciences industry leaders do to combat policies or values it detests?

Xconomy spoke with Levin and Holtzman about those thoughts and more. Edited excerpts from the conversation follow below.

Xconomy: What did you think of Ken Frazier’s decision to resign from Trump’s manufacturing council?

Jeremy Levin: I’m not surprised at all by his reaction. Ken is a leader of a huge company and has millions of shareholders. And I think he understands the fundamental fact that, without taking the principled and moral steps that you do, you cannot show leadership and therefore be successful in either delivering your product in the best possible way, or supporting your shareholders.

Steve Holtzman: I was horrified that it took an expression of racism and failure to condemn Nazism—in particular the racism—to finally stand up and say ‘No, enough.’ If you go back a year at this point almost, you had voices in the life sciences community saying that what this administration represents is inimical to the basic values and goals of our industry.

I think it’s fabulous what Ken did. I’m not being critical, this is criticism of modern society, if you will. I think the role of CEOs in modern capitalist society has transcended [the idea] that what we should care about is maximizing profits. We have a role, as leaders in a capitalist society, to speak [about] social justice—which I would argue is a necessary condition of the flourishing of a capitalist society.

X: So what, then, is the moral responsibility of the life sciences executive in this climate? Does it involve more than just statements and op-eds?

SH: As individuals, or as groups of individuals, we should be taking more of a role in the public discourse. There’s a tendency to assume that we CEOs are lumped with the right wing, that we represent the “elite.” But in innovative industries such as biotechnology, you have a tremendous number of people who are immigrants, who are descendants of immigrants—people who are much more entrepreneurial and care deeply about the conditions of social justice that made it possible for us to be “successful.” To “be elite.” There is a role for us to be speaking up, engaging the politicians and saying this is not what we stand for.

Much as the doctors and nurses stood up to the healthcare bill and said this is bad for our patients, we should be saying this is bad for our stakeholders, rather than sitting back and saying, ‘Let’s hold those chips for tax reform.’” Tax reform is necessary, but not at any cost.

X: Were you disappointed more life-science executives didn’t speak out after Charlottesville?

JL: To be honest it was less the response of last week than the response when the business councils were formed. At that time, each one of these industry players I believe sincerely felt that … Next Page »

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