Biotech and Pharma

Biogen CEO has 'mixed emotions' as he leaves company after 6 years

George Scangos
Scott Eells | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Biogen CEO George Scangos announced Thursday he's leaving the company after six years at the helm. He'll stay until the company finds his successor. CNBC caught up with Scangos, 68, to discuss where he leaves the big biotech.

(The following has been edited for length.)

On his departure:

I have mixed emotions. On the one hand, I love this company, the people; I've been here six years, developed really nice relationships with the people here. The company is full of quite amazing people. I think we have a good future, Biogen has a really good future. In that sense, I'm sad to go.

On the other hand, I feel good about what I've done here for the past six years, proud of what we've been able to accomplish, and I'm feeling like I'm leaving the company in good shape.

We've introduced six new products onto the market, so that's not a trivial thing. So I feel good the company was able to do that. We executed well on the launches.

I think the culture here is something I've worked really hard on, which I think is much improved. We've built up R&D, I feel really good about that. We've brought in some really first-tier people. So I think in neuroscience and neurology development, we are as good as any place.

On Biogen's culture:

Clearly, it's a culture of innovation, of taking on big problems, of caring. People here — every company says that they have patients at the center of what they do — that means something special here. People care.

When we had our ALS (or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) trial, and we're all in a room and the statisticians come in and the trial didn't work, there were tears around the room. Not for, 'Oh, shoot, our share price is going to go down.' It's because people cared so much about bringing things to patients.

We realize we're not a charity here. We have to bring returns to our shareholders, and we feel the way to do that is to bring real innovation to patients. So I feel good about that.

People go into biotech because they want to do something for patients. It's easy to lose sight of that. You get in the middle of your day-to-day job, you have issues you have to deal with and problems, meetings to go to. It's easy to lose sight of the big picture.

You have to remind people of that: why we're here, why does Biogen or any company have a right to exist? Why is the company in existence? It's because we have the potential to transform the lives of so many more patients, and by doing so provide real value to our shareholders.

If you look at my job from a strict point of view, my job is to maximize shareholder value. That's why I get paid. I'm fully aware of that.

But the way I believe, the way I can do that is to provide real value to patients. The way to motivate the thousands of employees here is not by thinking about how big their bonuses will be if we exceed our goals, but by thinking about the good they can do for patients out there.

On Biogen's risky bets in research:

We are taking on hard problems, and obviously there is no successful disease-modifying drug for the treatment of Alzheimer's, nor are there drugs that repair the central nervous system. It's uncharted waters and it does have some risk. We have tried to mitigate that risk in a number of ways.

One, we work on genetically validated targets. We minimize the chances the target we're working on won't impact the disease process.

If you take Alzheimer's disease as an example, there has been for decades debate as to whether the plaques are a cause or a result of the disease. There's very good human genetic data developed in the past two to three years that clearly shows if you can prevent the deposition of those plaques, you can prevent Alzheimer's.

I think we've demonstrated in the earlier study that our antibody does remove those plaques. But it's a different question: if you block the development of the plaques can you impact the disease, (versus) if I remove the plaques can I impact the disease?

Given the data we have, there's risk; certainly it's a risky trial. But it's a good risk to take.

On the financial risk of spending billions on Alzheimer's trials:

If it works, it should pay off big time, both in improvement of human health and return for shareholders. It's an expensive trial, but the reward is substantial.

On what's next:

I have nothing specific in mind. A lot of people have interpreted that I have something lined up that I wanted to move on to. I feel good, I have lots of energy, there are so many things to do, I just can't imagine not being involved. It's a busy year here at Biogen. I just don't have any time to think about what (comes next).

On speculation his departure means Biogen will be acquired:

Obviously I can't comment on that. That wouldn't make any logical sense to me that because I'm leaving the company is in play. We all believe, the board believes, I believe, the future is bright for Biogen.