Former Sanofi CEO Reinvents Himself With Bertarelli Fund

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Chris Viehbacher
Former Sanofi Chief Executive Officer Chris Viehbacher. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Chris Viehbacher’s ugly ouster from Sanofi hasn’t damped his appetite for drugs and science.

Viehbacher, the former chief executive of France’s largest drugmaker, will run Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli’s U.S. based Gurnet Point Capital fund, according to a statement. He has also joined the board of the technology transfer company PureTech Health Plc, which raised $171 million in an initial public offering on the London Stock Exchange this month.

The 55-year-old executive, once a candidate to run GlaxoSmithKline Plc, plans to stay in Boston, the city from which he tried to run Paris-based Sanofi. Viehbacher says the connection with Bertarelli, formerly the head of Geneva-based drug manufacturer Serono, goes back a long way. Bertarelli contacted him about the job within a day or two of his leaving Sanofi, although he needed time before reaching a decision.

“What I was looking for was to be able to put capital to work that could help companies be built over time,” Viehbacher said. “The fact that Ernesto himself has had a very successful career in health care makes it a whole lot more attractive as well -- there’s an awful lot of risk around.”

Viehbacher will start July 1 at Gurnet Point’s offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts, according to the statement. Gurnet is owned by Waypoint Capital, the Bertarelli family investment vehicle. The fund will have an initial allocation of $2 billion and Viehbacher will lead its global investment strategy.

“I was always impressed with him,” Bertarelli said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “We share views on how to bring value. $2 billion is a lot of money but also little money in health care.”

More Freedom

Viehbacher, in an interview in Boston last month, said he considered retirement, seeking other top management jobs, or finding a more constructive way back into the industry after he left Sanofi in October.

“I decided not to retire but I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial,” he said. He will be building the existing team at Gurnet Point.

“In today’s world there is money everywhere, and what we are looking to do is create what we call differentiated capital,” Viehbacher said. “You don’t have to have a time horizon of 5 to 7 years -- maybe it’s longer, maybe it’s shorter, but you can tailor how you invest with a lot more freedom because you only have one investor.”

‘Something Different’

He declined to comment on whether he was approached about leading other drugmakers after he left Sanofi. The past eight months allowed him to “go deep” into the Boston biotech scene, Viehbacher said.

The Bertarelli fund will allow him to be a “player, not just a spectator” in the industry, but taking up the new challenge wasn’t easy, Viehbacher said.

“When you grow up in a big corporation you live in a very structured environment,” he said. “You’re surrounded by people who will make sure you don’t take on too much risk. You have to be somewhat humble about saying: I’m going to do something different.”

Virtual Line

Viehbacher says his track record of successful acquisitions, from Reliant Pharmaceuticals Inc. during his days at London-based Glaxo all the way to the purchase of the U.S. biotech Genzyme Corp., his biggest achievement at Sanofi, gave him “a background that would lend itself to this type of activity.” At the French drugmaker, Viehbacher also built closer ties with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. and collaborated with Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc. to revamp Sanofi’s pipeline.

“He broke the mold, where pharma was standing on one side and biotech on the other, and there was a virtual line in between,” says Bertarelli. “He not only spoke about it but he did it.”

There are some things Viehbacher says he misses about his former life.

“You have a mass of resources and you can do things that you can’t do in anything other than these big corporations,” he said. “Being able to transform a company was very satisfying.”

Still, he says he doesn’t long for another job as a top pharma executive. Instead, he’s happy to “keep things small, with a small team, and to be involved more personally.”

“Sometimes when you’re CEO,” he said, “you are not sure whether you are running the company or the company’s running you.”

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