Surprise Exit: Novartis AG CEO to Retire and Return to Silicon Valley, R&D Head Named New Leader

Surprise Exit: Novartis AG CEO to Retire and Return to Silicon Valley, R&D Head Named New Leader September 5, 2017
By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

Joseph Jimenez, Novartis ’ chief executive officer since 2010, will be stepping down at the end of January 2018. He will be replaced by Vasant (Vas) Narasimhan, currently global head of Drug Development and chief medical officer.

Prior to joining Novartis, Jimenez worked at Clorox Co. and ConAgra Foods before heading the North American and eventually European operations of H.J. Heinz Co. When he joined Novartis in 2008, running the drug division, Bloomberg reports “he cloistered himself in his office early every morning with a tutor who schooled the new boss on the science behind the company’s medications.”

His replacement has a different background, which at least suggests that Novartis will place more emphasis on drug development. Narasimhan, a U.S. citizen, was born in Pittsburgh, grew up in New Jersey, and received his M.D. from Harvard Medical School and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Before joining Novartis in 2005, he was at McKinsey & Co. Last year, he became Novartis’ chief medical officer.

John Carroll, writing for Endpoints News, describes Vas Narasimhan as “an exuberant advocate of cutting-edge science who’s been making his mark with a slate of successful programs for the company’s next wave of blockbuster drugs.”

This appointment quickly followed the U.S. approval of Kymriah (tisagenlecleucel), the first approved CAR-T immuno-oncology therapy. But that’s not Narasimhan’s only success. He was behind the development of canakinumab, an anti-inflammatory for heart disease, a late-stage drug for migraine it’s developing with Amgen , BAF312 (siponimod) for relapsing multiple sclerosis and portfolio of biosimilars.

“Our goal will be to continue to drive that innovation agenda in a new world where there’s so many possibilities with new science, data and digital,” Narasimhan said in a call with reporters. He added, that “will continue to be the focus of the company, to translate that innovation into commercial success.”

It won’t necessarily be smooth sailing. Novartis’ Alcon n division, which makes contact lenses and surgical equipment, is struggling, and Novartis also has a $13.7 billion stake in Roche Holding AG, which has been something of a puzzle for the company.

Jimenez has indicated he will retire from Novartis on August 31, 2018, and between then and his stepping down, will remain available for consultation. In a statement, Jimenez said, “Both from a professional and a personal perspective, this is the right moment to hand the leadership reins of the company to Vas. Our strong pipeline and the strategic moves we have taken to focus the company have put Novartis on a strong path for the future. On the personal side, after 10 wonderful years in Switzerland, my family is ready to return to Silicon Valley and the U.S. I’m confident that Vas will be an excellent successor.”

During his tenure, Novartis developed Cosentyx for psoriasis and Kisqali for breast cancer. In 2014, he oversaw a complex, $30 billion deal where it traded much of its vaccines unit for GlaxoSmithKline ’s cancer portfolio, and the two companies then shared over-the-counter products like Excedrin and Sensodyne toothpaste in a joint venture. Eli Lilly and Co. acquired Novartis’ animal health business.

Jimenez also inked deals with Proteus Digital Health to develop drugs with sensors in the tablets that can let patients know they’re not taking the drug as prescribed, and a deal with Microsoft to use Xbox gaming systems to analyze movement in multiple sclerosis patients. He also signed a deal with Google to develop contact lenses that can evaluate blood glucose levels in tears.

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