Biogen CEO discusses challenges of drug discovery

November 8, 2016
As a JCC Fellow, George Scangos participated in creating the first transgenic mouse

Biogen CEO and former JCC Fellow George Scangos recently spoke about the challenges of drug discovery at Cornell University, where he is the Robert S. Hatfield Fellow in Economic Education.

When asked how he focuses on Biogen’s core products while facing pressure to be profitable, Scangos said, “I understand very well the necessity to, let’s say, service the short term – make sure that our quarterly earnings are at or above projections while we invest in the long term.” He continued, “You have to invest in the future. You just have to. And research is not something you can turn on and turn off. If you start it, you’re making a 10-year commitment, and you’ve got to stick to it. Because if you stop it, then all the money you’ve spent is wasted.” When asked about the “next big thing” in biotech, Scangos pointed to three areas of innovation: breakthroughs in neurodegenerative disease treatments, advances in gene therapy, and new RNA-based drugs.

As a JCC Fellow with Frank Ruddle at Yale University, Scangos was part of the team that created the first transgenic mouse. They took genetic material from two different viruses and injected it into fertilized mouse eggs, which were implanted into the uteri of adult female mice. Two of the 78 resulting offspring had viral DNA incorporated into their cells, thus demonstrating that genetic material could be transferred from one species to another.

Scangos wasn’t always interested in biology. As a freshman at Cornell University, he thought he’d major in French. But an engaging biology class set him on a different path. After earning his B.S. in Biology, he went on to complete his Ph.D. in microbiology at the University of Massachusetts and his postdoc with Frank Ruddle at Yale University, before becoming a professor at Johns Hopkins University. He also served as President of Bayer Biotechnology and CEO of Exelixis.

In 2010, Scangos became the CEO of Biogen and since then he oversaw the tripling of the company’s earnings and the doubling of its revenue. This success was in part due to shutting down the company’s oncology and cardiovascular research in order to focus on neurodegenerative diseases. In 2015, Fortune Magazine named him one of the country’s Top 10 CEOs.