Novartis follows up on big CAR-T win by naming Vas Narasimhan as its new CEO

Novartis, one of the world’s biggest spenders on drug R&D, will soon be run by a development expert.

The pharma giant announced Monday morning that Joe Jimenez is stepping down in February and handing the reins over to 41-year-old Vas Narasimhan, 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.

Narasimhan is now joining one of the most exclusive clubs in biopharma — CEO of a biopharma organization with activities that span the globe. In naming him CEO, the Basel-based company is keeping an American at the top. But instead of the marketing or legal background of most of his peers, Narasimhan brings experience in new product development.

His appointment came fast on the heels of an historic approval of Kymriah (tisagenlecleucel), the world’s first CAR-T therapy, widely celebrated as a key scientific breakthrough with profound therapeutic potential.

But the development chief has also had some success with canakinumab, an anti-inflammatory therapy for heart disease, along with new late-stage drug for migraine headaches partnered with Amgen, BAF312 (siponimod) for relapsing multiple sclerosis, a slate of biosimilars, and add-on data for portfolio therapies like the psoriasis drug Consentyx.

To be sure, there have been setbacks along the way (serelaxin, for example). But Narasimhan has presided over one of the biggest pipelines in the business for the past 18 months and an R&D effort that consumed $9 billion last year alone.

In making the move, the engaging Narasimhan will also be working closely with a board that has a rep for their restless search for cost efficiencies wherever they can be found. The company has lost a long stream of top talent in the last few years, but it’s also recruited a new generation of scientists like Jay Bradner out of Dana-Farber.

The big question now is how Narasimhan will change things in R&D now that he has his hand on the tiller. Every new CEO in the business this past year — and we’ve seen a stream of them at GSK, Eli Lilly, Biogen and more — started by restructuring their pipelines and initiating a new round of deals. Now it’s Narasimhan’s turn to put his stamp on Novartis after Jimenez has shunned big industry M&A — in a market where even mid-sized bolt-ons can look unappealing.

Narasimhan took the job pledging that the company would continue its global effort to nail down pivotal data on game-changing drugs — the kind of therapies that can make a big difference for patients, and earn billions in revenue.

His statement:

We will continue our legacy of bringing leading innovation to patients around the world. With our recent launches, our strong pipeline, broad capabilities, world-class leadership team, and committed people, I am very confident about our future.

Vasant Narasimhan at a January 2017 news conference in Basel Michele Limina/Bloomberg

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