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Sanford-Burnham’s CEO Sees Incredible Opportunity in Move to Roche

Xconomy San Diego — 

John Reed says his decision to resign as CEO of Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute was not planned—but came about with an offer to join the Swiss pharmaceutical giant—and he cited both personal and professional reasons for leaving the San Diego institute.

The Sanford-Burnham, which Reed joined 21 years ago as a rising star in cancer research, announced his departure yesterday. He is moving to Basel, Switzerland, in April to become the Head of Roche Pharma Research and Early Development.

“It’s an incredible opportunity and one of the biggest jobs in pharma,” Reed said in a phone interview. Roche is one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world, with more than 80,000 employees and over $45 billion in annual revenue. At Pharma Research and Early Development, Reed will oversee about 2,000 employees in Roche labs in Basel, Germany, Singapore, Shanghai, London, and New York. Perhaps more importantly, Reed said Roche is one of the first big pharmas to embrace personalized medicine early on. As he put it, “All of us see this [coming] era of personalized medicine as the next frontier.”

Reed said he also had personal reasons in making the move. He was named as the institute’s president and CEO in 2002, and now, after 11 years, he and his wife are empty nesters and ready to take on something new. The Sanford-Burnham has just completed a very successful 10-year plan that doubled the institute’s size, which he described at length for Xconomy in August. “We’re turning the page and getting ready to begin a new chapter,” he said, “and I feel very confident about the stature of the institute at this time.”

Although federal funding is under pressure and research grants from the National Institutes of Health have been declining for everyone, Reed said it’s been less of a concern at the Sanford-Burnham “because we have been able to diversify” with research funding from pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Takeda. “We actually had our best year ever in 2012,” Reed said, “with $110 million in grants and contracts. Of course, less of that was coming from the NIH than in the past.”

Reed acknowledged that the drug research and development division he is joining “went through a pretty rough consolidation.” Roche shut down its campus in Nutley, NJ, and laid off hundreds of scientists in a global reorganization. But he said, “From my perspective, the worst is now behind them,” and he doesn’t anticipate any further cutbacks. “Now is a good opportunity to bring in a new leader and to provide some stability and to move the team forward,” Reed said.

As for leadership at the Sanford-Burnham, Reed voiced his confidence in Kristiina Vuori, a Finnish cancer researcher who joined the institute in 1992 and who is now president and director of the institute’s cancer center. Vuori told me she and Reed were recruited at the same time by Reed’s predecessor, Erkki Ruoslahti, who also was educated in Finland.

Even though he named Vuori as president three years ago, when he separated the duties of the institute’s CEO and president, Reed said what’s happening is not a planned leadership transition. “We were preparing for this, but there was not a formal plan in place,” he explained.

Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute

Kristiina Vuroi

When I asked if the board had formed a CEO search committee, Vuori said the board is finalizing their plan on how to proceed. Vuori, who has been overseeing development of the institute’s next 10-year plan, said that also would be coming before the board’s next meeting in March.

“It’s a bittersweet departure,” Vuori said. “John’s departure is definitely a loss. But hopefully it’s a win at the same time. It’s a kudo for the institute that he’s taking such a prestigious position, and I do hope that we all keep those connections…” Reed agreed, saying, “I suspect we’ll find some new opportunities between Roche and the Sanford-Burnham.”