Merck KGaA names Garijo CEO, punching another hole in biopharma's glass ceiling

GlaxoSmithKline chief Emma Walmsley is the only female CEO of a Big Pharma company, but a new member will soon join the small club as Merck KGaA punches another hole in the industry’s glass ceiling.

The German company has named Belén Garijo, currently CEO of Merck Healthcare, as its new chief executive. She will succeed current helmsman Stefan Oschmann when his tenure ends by the end of April 2021.

Garijio’s appointment is a natural one, as she’s currently deputy CEO of the entire company, as was Oschmann before he took the office in 2016. But lifting her to the top job instead of bringing in a male veteran from the outside is still a breakthrough move, given the scarcity of female CEOs in the biopharma industry—and looking beyond the company is exactly what Merck did in picking two new leaders for its business sectors.

Peter Guenter, who’s been CEO of Spanish pharma Almirall since 2017, will fill the healthcare unit job left by Garijo, Merck said Monday. Matthias Heinzel, currently chemical giant DuPont’s president of nutrition & biosciences, will become CEO of Merck’s MilliporeSigma life sciences business, taking over from Udit Batra, who just left for the CEO job at specialty measurement company Waters Corporation.

Garijo joined Merck in 2011 after years at Sanofi. She was first chief operating officer of the EMD Serono biopharma franchise at the German drugmaker before moving up the rank in 2015 to become CEO of the then-overarching healthcare department. After several strategic shifts, that unit now only contains the biopharma business.

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During her tenure as CEO of Merck Healthcare, the company made several strategic moves, including divesting its biosimilar portfolio to Fresenius Kabi in 2017 and offloading consumer health to Procter & Gamble for about $4.2 billion in 2018. Earlier this year, it sold the Allergopharma allergy drug business to German compatriot Dermapharm.

On the flip side, the EMD Serono franchise has seen several major milestones over the past few years. Its Pfizer PD-L1 collaboration bore fruit in 2017 when the FDA approved their Bavencio in Merkel cell carcinoma and urothelial carcinoma. Multiple sclerosis drug Mavenclad also snagged its U.S. go-ahead in 2019, eight years after an FDA rejection.

Those two drugs, as well as EGFR inhibitor Erbitux’s addition to China’s National Reimbursement Drug List, were the main growth drivers for Merck’s healthcare business in 2019. Together, that franchise brought in sales of €6.71 billion ($7.82 billion) in 2019, up 6.2% at constant currencies.

And Merck's keeping the biopharma wheel rolling. Just a month ago, the FDA accepted its filing for MET inhibitor tepotinib in non-small cell lung cancer with METex14 skipping alterations and is evaluating it under the Real-Time Oncology Review pilot program. The drug’s closely behind Novartis’ in-class rival Tabrecta (capmatinib).

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In 2019, GSK paid up to $4.2 billion for Merck KGaA’s bifunctional fusion protein-based cancer immunotherapy, binstrafusp alfa, as the British drugmaker develops a growing appetite for oncology.

Now, with Garijo’s appointment, the immunotherapy will witness a collaboration between two large biopharma firms with female CEOs at the helm.

Walmsley made history in 2017 as she became Big Pharma’s first female CEO. Since then, Lundbeck named Deborah Dunsire as its chief executive, and Reshma Kewalramani took over Vertex’s CEO baton from Jeff Leiden in April, but Mylan’s merging with Pfizer’s Upjohn established medicines unit leaves Heather Bresch out of a job.

Female CEOs are still a rare sight in biopharma, even though the industry is approaching gender parity across its entire workforce. Higher levels are weighted heavily toward men, though: A recent survey by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization showed women make up 30% of executive teams among the organization’s members, which include many small biotechs that employ less than 100 people.