AstraZeneca chief chalks up milestones on his map to $45B

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot

AstraZeneca ($AZN) CEO Pascal Soriot summarizes his accomplishments at the U.K.-based pharma giant in two words--Lynparza and Tagrisso.

Lynparza (olaparib), the ovarian cancer drug, was the first big change Soriot made when he took over as CEO in 2012. He canceled a $285 million write-off on that drug and slotted it back into clinical trials. And, he says now, rescuing that drug from the R&D scrap heap helped prove his worth to AstraZeneca's far-flung employees.

"Our scientists were pulling their hair out because they wanted to move forward, but there was a commercial mindset that it was too small and not interesting," Soriot told the Financial Times in an interview published Thursday. After the med won FDA and EU approval, "Olaparib was really very useful culturally because it changed the mindset and people have accepted, 'yes, we follow the science.'"

Tagrisso, on the other hand, is evidence that Soriot was right to fend off Pfizer's ($PFE) $100 million-plus buyout bid. Just 18 months into his tenure as CEO, Soriot whipped up U.K. opposition to the megamerger, partly by pointing to the R&D disruptions megamergers cause.

Tagrisso is his vindication, Soriot told the FT. The EGFR-targeted lung cancer med sped its way from lab to market, and a Pfizer merger would have stopped it in its tracks, at least temporarily. "We could not have done that in a disrupted environment," Soriot says.

Tagrisso beat a rival from Clovis Oncology ($CLVS) to market, and FierceBiotech called its approval a "big win" for Soriot in making his case that his company really has turned the corner. AZ has pegged the drug at $3 billion in peak sales.

Soriot will have to wait awhile to be vindicated on another point: his goal of $45 billion in revenue within a decade. That was another of his Pfizer-fighting maneuvers in 2014. In an interview last year, Soriot admitted that AstraZeneca would have to be "lucky" to hit that target, but he's not giving up on it, either. He just doesn't want investors to be fixated on that number--or to measure his progress quarter by quarter.

In the meantime, AstraZeneca faces the loss of patent protection on its cholesterol-fighting blockbuster Crestor later this year--a big sales blow, Soriot said during last quarter's earnings call--and its "trough year," 2017, when revenue is expected to hit its nadir. But some of the deals Soriot has made recently should start paying off, and he's likely to continue restating his confidence in his big 2023 forecasts--as he also did during last quarter's earnings call. "We'll deliver on our commitments to you," Soriot said then. We'll see how he follows up when AZ unveils its latest numbers in a couple of weeks. -- Tracy Staton (email | Twitter)

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