Ready to rumble, Ironwood? Activist investor Alex Denner suits up for board-seat bid

Boardroom (Image: Jo Johnston / Pixabay)
Sarissa Capital Management intends to nominate Alex Denner for Ironwood's board. (Jo Johnston/Pixabay)

Activist investor Alex Denner is back at it in biopharma. Just a few months after playing a pivotal role in Sanofi’s Bioverativ acquisition, he has set his sights on Ironwood Pharmaceuticals.

The Massachusetts drugmaker on Monday said it had received word from Denner’s Sarissa Capital Management, which held 1.92 million Ironwood shares at the end of 2017, that it intended to nominate Denner for Ironwood’s board.

It’s not the first communication Ironwood has received from Denner and company either. Members of the pharma’s management team had one introductory meeting with Sarissa representatives before the fund sent over its board notification, the company said.

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The way Wells Fargo analyst David Maris sees it, the development is a positive one given Denner’s “track record for value creation with other firms.”

The company’s inventory of early stage pipeline programs—combined as they are with GI drug Linzess, which Ironwood shares with Allergan—may be mixing investors up, he figures, “as a development stage company may appeal to different investors than a commercial company would.” So, while Maris considers Ironwood’s leaders to be “earnest and capable” and likes their direction, he’s open to the idea that a new board member could potentially “help the company see new ways to unlock value.”

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Ironwood, for its part, doesn’t see anything wrong with its current board composition. It has added six new directors since 2013, and the entire nine-director slate has “significant experience that is critical to our business,” the company said.

Still, it stressed that it “maintains open and ongoing communications with its shareholders and welcomes views and opinions that may advance its goal of creating shareholder value.“

RELATED: How did Sanofi win over Bioverativ? It upped its bid—and called on activist investor Alex Denner

If Sarissa’s communication turns out to mark the beginning of a protracted proxy battle, Ironwood could be in trouble. Currently, the company’s pre-IPO shareholders hold super-voting rights in the event of a change-in-control vote, but those rights will disappear at the end of the year—an event that “may leave Ironwood more vulnerable to activist investors,” Maris noted.

Denner, formerly the right-hand man of notorious rebel investor Carl Icahn, has targeted several biopharma companies over the last few years, including Ariad and Aegerion. Most recently, he helped orchestrate Sanofi’s $11.6 billion Bioverativ buy, which redeemed the French drugmaker after failed plays for Medivation and Actelion.