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Biotech's Dumbest CEO Moves in 2015

By Kristine Harjes - Jan 30, 2016 at 1:01PM

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Which biotech CEOs are most ready to forget 2015?

Entering a new year means turning over a new leaf. Or at least that's what a handful of biotech CEOs would have you believe. Last year was an exciting one to follow the biotech sector, and it was largely filled with really exceptional leaders making brilliant decisions. But the industry wasn't without colossal failures, too. Of course, company decisions are rarely the product of the CEO alone, but as the head of the company, they take the brunt of the blame. Let's look at some of the dumbest moves made last year.

Loose lips, tight pants
Weight-loss drugs as a whole have been a huge disappointment for investors. Orexigen (NASDAQ: OREX) looked for a while as if its drug Contrave could hold the advantage over its flailing competitors because of a head start on a long-term cardiovascular outcomes trial.

This trial of nearly 9,000 participants, run in conjunction with Takeda Pharmaceuticals, was intended to show that Contrave is safe for long-term use. And things looked really good at first. In fact, the first time we heard results from the study, Orexigen claimed a 41% reduction in risk of death 25% of the way through the trial. But, as it turns out, revealing the results of this interim analysis to more people than strictly necessary may have compromised the entire trial. The FDA demanded a trial redo, and Takeda rightfully handed the bill (estimated to be $200 million) for this new trial over to Orexigen.

We later find out when the initial trial was 50% complete that that 41% benefit had all but disappeared. Contrave may eventually prove to be safe in the long run and have a leg up on its competitors, but data now won't be out until 2022. Contrave will likely continue to struggle in the meantime, and Orexigen's CEO Michael Narachi will surely be kicking himself for the expensive mistake.

Too much faith in MannKind
 (MNKD 0.46%) (yes, the company -- I'm not that cynical) has been a disaster ever since it released its first and only drug, Afrezza, an inhalable insulin. If a stock collapsing following it finally exiting the realm of "clinical stage" sounds odd, you're right. Afrezza's commercialization should have boosted the company substantially -- the drug was expected to generate at least $1 billion in annual sales at its peak. Rather than come charging out of the gate, however, Afrezza crawled, producing only a hair over $5 million in sales in its first three quarters on the market.

While it would be really easy to blame MannKind's various CEOs for this miserable performance, I'm actually telling this story to highlight what I see as an even dumber CEO move -- that of Sanofi (SNY -1.27%) and its leadership for throwing fistfuls of money at MannKind to develop Afrezza. Sanofi paid MannKind $150 million upfront, coughed up an additional $50 million milestone payment, agreed to foot 65% of the profits or losses, and took on the task of marketing the drug in its entirety. The deal was announced in late 2014 under the leadership of Chris Viehbacher. 2015 went by with practically no upside from the deal, and Sanofi has since changed CEOs. 

To current CEO Oliver Brandicourt's credit, Sanofi admitted defeat earlier this month and backed out of the agreement almost immediately after the terms of the contract allowed it to. Still, Sanofi, a global powerhouse in diabetes treatment, threw $200 million down the drain and has nearly nothing to show for it other than unflattering ties to a company that seems to be in its twilight hours.

Shkreli shkrews it all up
Without a doubt the dumbest biotech CEO move of the year was made by none other than "Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli. Shkreli first came into the spotlight as CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals when the company raised the price of a drug used to treat a rare infection from $13.50 to $750 overnight. Which, as you might imagine, put everyone in a tizzy and ignited a national debate about drug pricing.

I actually wouldn't pin the price hike as The Dumbest Move -- that honor belongs to Shkreli's handling of the situation. No one was quite sure what this former hedge fund manager was doing as a biotech CEO in the first place, but I think it's safe to say CEOs across the industry were banging their heads against the wall that this guy was the one who ended up spearheading the pharmaceutical defense against claims of price gouging.

To Shkreli's credit, he actually did a logically convincing job of laying out the rationale behind seemingly high drug prices. Unfortunately though, the sheer annoyance of his character pretty much discredited his entire argument and painted the drug industry in a less-than-flattering light. National outrage persisted, and stocks across the sector were creamed. Meanwhile, I have yet to see a widely acknowledged defense of the pharmaceutical industry by someone that the public would (a) listen to and (b) take seriously. (Why do those two traits so often lie in conflict?)

In the meantime, companies like Gilead Sciences, the maker of revolutionary cures for hepatitis C, are seen as the enemy. Thanks, Shkreli.

How to smartly react to these dumb moves
As a final thought, I will note that the turbulence throughout the healthcare industry has created some interesting buying opportunities. I seriously doubt that Gilead's pricing power is going anywhere (as least as a result of actual legislative action), and the stock is trading for just over 8 times forward earnings. Of course, there's more that goes into that particular story. But, for whatever influence the pricing debacle has had on creating this discounted buying opportunity on a fantastic company, I would actually say a genuine "Thanks, Shkreli."

Kristine Harjes owns shares of Gilead Sciences. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Gilead Sciences. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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