September 25, 2017
Other Voices

Alexion should reconsider HQs move

Bijan Almassian

Alexion's planned headquarters move to Boston shows a lack of vision and business sense.

The claim by Alexion's recently named CEO Ludwig Hantson that Connecticut lacks talent could not be further from the truth. Yale, Wesleyan and UConn train many top-notch scientists every year.

Moreover, the downsizing of Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Boehringer-Ingelheim and Bayer over the last decade has left the state with an enormous pool of biotech talent just waiting to be tapped by other growing companies.

With financial support from the state, Alexion began in a New Haven area dubbed the "combat zone" because it was such a dangerous part of town. At the time, I worked at Vion Pharmaceuticals in the same building, so I can attest to how we often heard drive-by shootings and saw the cracks in our windows from errant bullets as witness to how miserable an area it was in which to work.

But despite the many difficulties of working in a small company and unsafe environment, the founders and scientists at Alexion persisted, developing and commercializing Soliris, which treats two incurable blood diseases and brings in upwards of $3 billion a year in sales and has helped drive Alexion's market cap to more than $30 billion. Alexion's success gave lots of hope to smaller biotechs in the state.

That's why Alexion's move to Boston is such a selfish and short-sighted act by its new management team, appointed in the wake of news that Alexion had launched an internal investigation into improper sales practices by senior management.

After my initial shock at Alexion's headquarters announcement, I became curious and did a bit of research to find out more about Hantson, who was hired in March. I learned that he worked at many large European companies, mostly in sales and marketing, staying with some of them for just a few years.

Impressively, he was president of Novartis North America, though its stock price didn't perform well during his tenure. In 2012, when Hantson was CEO of Synovis Life Sciences, Baxter bought it for $325 million. Hantson was also CEO of Baxalta for only six months in 2016, after the company was bought by Shire for $32 billion, leaving him with a $15 million severance package and hundreds of people out of work.

As a veteran biotechnologist working for over 30 years for seven private and public companies and familiar with the history of many biotechnology companies, I strongly believe Hantson's and his board's decision to move Alexion to Boston is wrong and self-centered.

In my opinion, Hantson is looking for another quick financial gain at the expense of hundreds of employees who gave their youth and provided the best expertise to build Alexion. Instead of moving to Boston to find talent and build a pipeline, Alexion should look to the talent and technologies being developed by Connecticut universities and start-up companies.

I have been in a similar situation to the one Alexion employees are now in, and I know how they feel. They have lost trust in their leaders. I am confident many of those employees are now less likely to stay around and are looking for the first opportunity to run out the door. They know that Alexion's 20 percent workforce reduction is likely only the beginning.

As a fellow biotech colleague, I urge Alexion to reconsider its headquarters move. Many of the biggest biotechs were built by their original founders, such as Amgen, Biogen, Genentech, Genzyme, Celgene, and so many others that built pipelines of the most innovative drugs and biologics and generated wealth for their investors without moving to other states, instead helping create and anchor biotech hubs where they were.

Alexion staying put would be the right thing to do. Connecticut's biotech industry will be stronger for it. With Alexion at the center, our biotech community has a better chance of growing and thriving. What Alexion could do for New Haven is what Genentech did for South San Francisco in 1976, making the Bay Area the second largest biotech hub in the world.

This decision is ill-conceived and we must do everything in our power to reverse it.

Bijan Almassian is president and CEO of Farmington-based CaroGen Corp., which is developing a vaccine platform.

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