Novartis bids goodbye to Hudson, hello to new pharma chief Tschudin

Novartis headquarters
Novartis is advancing in the nascent gene therapy arena while revving up for 10 blockbuster launches over the next several years. (Novartis)

In the game of executive musical chairs triggered by Sanofi CEO Olivier Brandicourt’s exit, Novartis lost its pharma chief, Paul Hudson. But it was ready with a replacement: Marie-France Tschudin, who joined the company in January 2017 from Celgene.

Tschudin takes the baton from Hudson as Novartis revs up several new launches and builds out its portfolio in a half-dozen therapeutic fields while threading digital through its entire operation. She'll report to CEO Vas Narasimhan, who's rather new to his own role and working to put his own stamp on the company.

Meanwhile, her promotion to president of Novartis Pharmaceuticals puts Tschudin among the most highly placed women in the pharma industry. She joins Novartis Oncology chief Susanne Schaffert and General Counsel Shannon Klinger on the Swiss drugmaker's executive committee, and that trio of female leaders makes Novartis' top management team more diverse, gender-wise, than those of most other Big Pharmas.

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She’ll have plenty to do at Novartis, though, as it advances into the nascent gene therapy arena while rolling out new meds—and keeping track of recent launches—in more traditional areas. Just last month, Narasimhan talked up 25 new launches its pharma unit’s planning over the next several years, including 10 potential blockbusters.

Among those rollouts is Zolgensma, Novartis’ brand-new gene therapy and the most expensive drug ever. Priced at $2.1 million, the spinal muscular atrophy treatment is testing new waters in value-based payer deals and installment-plan payment models—not to mention justifying multimillion-dollar price tags. And then there's Mayzent, the first drug approved to treat secondary progressive multiple sclerosis.

Meanwhile, Tschudin will bear part of the responsibility for pushing Narasimhan's ambitions in digital, big data and artificial intelligence, one of his top priorities for the drugmaker.

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Tschudin started in biopharma as a sales rep for Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen-Cilag unit and hopscotched her way to Celgene, where she worked for 10 years before joining Novartis. She jumped from her role heading up Celgene’s hematology business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa to take the reins of Novartis’ pharma business in Europe. After that—and until Friday—Tschudin served as president of Novartis’ recently acquired radiotherapeutics business, Advanced Accelerator Applications.

Now a member of Novartis’ executive committee, Tschudin reports to CEO Narasimhan, who himself is rather new to his job; he took over as CEO last January, replacing Joe Jimenez. Hudson, for his part, had been running the pharma unit since 2016, when then-pharma chief David Epstein made his exit.

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Besides its Zolgensma launch, Novartis is rolling out the world’s first drug for secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, Mayzent, and working to build business for its first CAR-T cell therapy, Kymriah, which has faltered early on because of manufacturing problems. It’s building up in radiotherapeutics, thanks in part to the Advanced Accelerator Applications acquisition, and solidifying its ophthalmology drugs franchise now that its eye-focused Alcon business has gone independent, taking its contact lenses and surgical devices with it.

In announcing Tschudin’s promotion, Narasimhan cited the company’s upcoming “transformative” launches and alluded to several of his other goals for Novartis—including “integrity,” as the company works to move beyond bribery and kickbacks scandals that have pocked its record over the past several years.

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“Marie-France has a strong record of accomplishments in driving commercial excellence and a culture of inclusiveness and integrity founded on her exemplary commitment to patients and customers,” Narasimhan said in a release. “She has always been highly respected by people working with her and will bring new and diverse perspectives to our executive leadership team.”

With Tschudin, Novartis now has three women on its executive committee. If Hudson’s path is any indication, Tschudin could well be on track for her own CEO post eventually. Big Pharma now boasts only one female CEO, Emma Walmsley at GlaxoSmithKline, and though female CEOs are more common at smaller biotechs, the gender balance in biopharma is tilted dramatically toward men.