Biogen has poached Pfizer’s head of R&D in Cambridge to lead its research organization — which means that Michael Ehlers, who doubles as Pfizer’s chief scientific officer for neuroscience research, will leave the company in late May, and his former employer will have two big jobs to fill.
Ehlers has handled all neuro-related research at Pfizer since 2010, but served just one year as the head of Pfizer’s BioTherapeutics hub, housed in two giant buildings in Kendall Square. His predecessor, J.C. Gutiérrez-Ramos, left to run the startup Synlogic last year, and his successor, whoever that may be, will be the third person to lead the department since it opened its doors in June 2014.
Pfizer declined to provide any specifics on Ehlers’s departure, including who’s taking over either of his roles in the interim. Unlike Biogen, which announced Ehlers’s hire on Wednesday, Pfizer did not put out a press release to reveal his move. Rather, in a brief emailed statement, the company said Ehlers’s departure has no effect on Pfizer’s commitment to Kendall, adding that it’s in the midst of “a thorough internal and external search” for his replacement.
What’s unclear is how this affects the roughly 1,400 people who work in Pfizer’s Kendall outpost, many of whom were recently imported from downsized facilities in Cambridge’s Alewife neighborhood and Groton, Conn.
For years, biotech people have bemoaned the constant restructurings in the drug business as being deleterious to R&D progress — former Pfizer research chief John LaMattina even ran the numbers back in 2011 — so what’s it like when you’ve had three bosses in less than two years?
Neuroscientist Robin Kleiman, who worked with Ehlers at Pfizer, said pervasive leadership turnover is a fact of life in pharma, adding that her former boss’s six years in charge of neuroscience were “kind of an eternity by today’s standards.”
“There’s no question that constant change can impact productivity,” said Kleiman, who now heads preclinical research at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Often when a new leader comes in and takes stock of things, they reassess the portfolio and decide on what their priorities are going to be, and it’s disruptive.”
Of course, this sort of thing happens all the time in the drug business, including at Biogen: Ehlers is replacing Doug Williams, who last year left to run a startup, and one of Williams’s predecessors, Michael Gilman, did the same thing about a decade earlier.
And speaking of Biogen, the company is touting its new hire, with his experience in neuroscience, as the ideal person to lead its brain-focused pipeline.
Biogen “scoured the globe,” CEO George Scangos told Bloomberg, before it picked a guy who worked a half-mile away.
Ehlers, a former professor of neurobiology at Duke, will now oversee Biogen’s high-risk, high-reward bets on Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
Kleiman, who earlier this year coauthored a perspective article with Ehlers on problems in preclinical study design, said Biogen is getting a scientist with a “seemingly limitless capacity to hold and integrate information,” which is just what the company needs as it doubles down on therapies for neurodegenerative diseases.
“Clearly Biogen is really committed to neuroscience,” she said. “Hopefully Pfizer is, too.”