Legendary Genentech CEO Levinson cuts last ties with Roche

Art Levinson

Roche wanted to hang on to former Genentech CEO Art Levinson after buying out his company in 2009. But after a 5-year board stint, Levinson--now the chief exec at Google's Calico--is saying his goodbyes.

And Levinson not only bid the Swiss pharma farewell on Thursday, resigning from its board of directors with immediate effect. His reason for departing is this: He just announced a major R&D deal with Roche ($RHHBY) rival AbbVie ($ABBV).

The Swiss drugmaker most likely passed on the opportunity to partner up with Calico, FierceBiotech figures, losing Levinson in the process. Kepler Cheuvreux analyst Fabian Wenner doesn't like that bargain. Levinson's departure "is quite a loss for Roche in my view," he told Reuters. The fact that "Calico partnered with AbbVie and not with Roche is not a good indicator."

With the move, Levinson will avoid any conflict of interest that could stem from his role at Calico. Roche Chairman Christoph Franz--who nabbed that position in March after Levinson was passed over--thanked Levinson for his contributions, saying the company regrets his decision but at the same time understands his reasons.

Back in '09, when Roche picked up the remaining Genentech stake for $47 billion, keeping the biotech's execs around was a high priority. At the time, then-Chairman Franz Humer put an emphasis on preserving Genentech's unique culture. Roche wanted to foster the atmosphere that produced the world's top cancer drug lineup. Genentech's R&D operations quickly took the lead within the company, with higher productivity and plenty of influence.

Since the deal, some of Genentech's top people have taken their culture elsewhere. Roche's head of product development, Susan Desmond-Hellmann, left fairly quickly to become chancellor at University of California-San Francisco and now heads up the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Former Genentech CFO David Ebersman jumped to the same role at Facebook. Levinson isn't the only Genentech vet Roche has lost to Google's young biotech initiative, either. Last November, he convinced his former chief medical officer, Hal Barron, to leave his post as Roche's R&D chief and take up the job at Calico.

As Wenner points out, Roche's board now boasts only one member with industry sector experience--a factor that's riled investors at other pharma-lite companies like Teva Pharmaceutical Industries ($TEVA). That's not such a big deal for Roche, which is far from light on expertise itself. But filling Levinson's shoes will be a tough task. Industry pioneers aren't easy to find.

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Special Report: The most influential people in biopharma today - 2014 - Art Levinson - Calico