JPM23: New Biogen CEO Viehbacher aims to steer away from 'melting iceberg' and redefine the company

As new CEO Chris Viehbacher takes the wheel and drives Biogen away from its Aduhelm disaster, the Sanofi vet plans “no radical left turns.”

Still, after the company’s failed Aduhelm launch in Alzheimer’s disease, Biogen is due for some “redefinition of what we’re about,” the CEO said during a fireside chat at this year's J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference.

To do that, Biogen will use existing and upcoming product launches to tap into broader markets, including immunology, psychiatry, and rare diseases. Viehbacher called Biogen’s “courage and persistence” to chase areas of unmet need in neuroscience a “terrific thing,” but one that’s “high-risk" and "high reward” thanks to long and expensive trials.

When Biogen brought in Viehbacher to pick up after former CEO Michel Vounatsos, investors honed in on his M&A background. As a former Sanofi CEO, Viehbacher was at the reins when the company shelled out $20 billion to buy Genzyme. That deal helped turn the tide for Sanofi and marked a shift in the industry as a whole.

This time around as a CEO, Viehbacher has more experience to guide his decisions.

“You can have a strategy, but after 35 years, I've discovered you got to be still pretty opportunistic,” Viehbacher said. “You can go fishing, but you don't know whether you're going to eat bass tonight—or anything for that matter.”

Within Biogen, “there’s a lot that’s already good,” he said. “I don’t feel a pressure that we have to go do something quickly.”

For now, Viehbacher said he'll prioritize research collaborations over large M&A. He said Biogen is “a really good partner,” citing its collabs with Ionis, UCB, Denali and Eisai. He wouldn’t shy away from an acquisition but said it carries more risk.

Meanwhile, multiple sclerosis has been Biogen’s bread and butter for most of its 40-year history, but these days, the franchise is a “melting iceberg.”

“It’s not got growth perspectives,” Viehbacher said. “And my job, as I see it, is to restore the company to sustainable growth.”

To do that, the new CEO will look to two promising products set to launch in the near future. The FDA just last week approved Eisai-partnered Leqembi, giving Biogen another shot at Alzheimer’s disease. And last month, Biogen and Sage Therapeutics completed their submission for zuranolone, a two-week course to treat major depressive disorder and postpartum depression. If approved, the drug would represent the first new method of action in mental health and depression in decades, Viehbacher said.

As for the ill-fated Aduhelm? It’s still racking up costs, which is something the company “has to figure out.” Under the terms of the drug’s approval, a confirmatory study will only add to Aduhelm’s costs. However, if the drug loses its approval, different options come into play.

“Maybe this is an asset that has value to others, and we have to evaluate that,” he said.

Despite its messy recent history in Alzheimer’s disease, the new CEO sees potential to build an Alzheimer’s treatment franchise. On top of Leqembi, the partners have two other assets in development, Viehbacher said. 

Overall, as he jumps into his first full year at the helm, Viehbacher is confident in the strength of his company.

“I do believe that there's an awful lot of strong fundamentals in the company,” he said. “Lecanemab and zuranolone: If we get those right, that's going to account for an awful lot of the new Biogen.”