Biogen CEO tells Gratz 'Our economy depends on brain power

Northeastern Trustee Chris Viehbacher shared his experiences and advice with Bouve College of Health Sciences graduates Saturday.

Chris Viehbacher, President and CEO of Biogen, delivered the keynote address at the Bouve College of Health Sciences commencement on May 4. Photo by Heratch Ekmekjian for Northeastern University

This is part of our coverage of Northeastern University’s 2024 the beginning.

An ALS diagnosis is usually a death sentence. But a young father of three with ALS in New Zealand has struggled to walk and is able to move on his own again thanks to Biogen’s new drug to treat patients with the disease and a rare genetic mutation.

Northeastern University trustee Chris Wiehbacher, president and CEO of Biogen, broke the story to Bouve College of Health Sciences graduates on Saturday. But he reminded them that when it comes to health sciences, there are always new challenges.

„As I stand with you this morning, there is a funeral for a dear friend of mine who passed away this week from ALS,” Viehbacher said while speaking to graduates, friends and family members at Matthews Arena on the Northeast Boston campus. „But it’s a reminder that as much as we’ve done, there’s still a lot of work to do.

But the hundreds of Bouve students in the audience, he said, are ready to pursue innovation in the health field through fellowships, research experience and classes from Northeastern.

„As an employer, I can tell you that your academic studies have given you a great foundation of knowledge and principles,” he said. „At Biogen, there are 20 to 30 interns each year, and I know from my own company how valuable Northeastern students are. As you take your next steps toward a professional career, you can be confident that you will learn and achieve great things.”

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Viehbacher, the parent of a 2018 Northeastern graduate, spoke at the ceremony honoring the graduating undergraduate and graduate students, drawing on her own deep background in connecting innovation and public health.

Viehbacher joined Biogen in November 2022 as its President, CEO and a member of the Board of Directors. Prior to that he worked for large pharmaceutical and entrepreneurial biotech companies, including 20 years at GlaxoSmithKline and six years as global CEO for Sanofi. He recently co-founded Garnet Point Capital, a Cambridge-based health care investment fund that inspired other creative ventures.

“You have lit the path for innovation that improves health and public welfare,” Bouve Dean Carmen Sceppa said as she presented Viehbacher with the citation. „Your achievements encompass a life that has led to unprecedented change on the world stage.”

During his career, Vihbacher said, he witnessed several global public health crises. In the late 1980s, he worked in Hamburg, Germany, with a company developing an antiviral drug to treat AIDS. Later, he teamed up with the health minister in France to bring low-cost antiviral drugs to Africa, and teamed up with Dr. Anthony Fauci — whom he described as „already a rock star” — on what he called the U.S. trip to Uganda. was preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

„I learned that innovation must be coupled with equal access,” Vihbacher added.

Around this time, Viehbacher said, along with Biogen, biologics began to dominate the healthcare industry with the goal of being the first biotech company on the East Coast of the United States. That eventually allowed the city to become a center for biopharmaceutical research, he added. Since then, advances in genetic technology have allowed new approaches to fighting cancer and treating autoimmune diseases.

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Viehbacher recalled this as highlighting the importance of continuous discovery and innovation in the health sciences, especially as millions of people still face incurable diseases.

„When we look back in history, the industrial age transformed economies into financial capital and machines were created,” he said. „In today’s world, our economy depends on brain power. Engineering and technology are certainly areas where economic brain power can be turned into economic power.

But the same is true for the health sciences, Vihbacher said.

„You’ve seen significant investments in research in the Northeast,” he said. “This year I was honored to help open the new EXP research facility. Academic research translates into clinical and biopharmaceutical research, developing new treatments and improving society’s health and thus productivity. … So we have opportunity, we have challenges, and we have tremendous need.

He reminded the students that there are always new questions to be addressed in health and science, and that it always gives those in the field an opportunity to explore if they are trying to find out more about why certain treatments work for certain mutations of ALS. Improve access to healthcare.

Vihbacher said the latter is especially important to keep in mind because the disease affects everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, income level or any other factor. And whether graduates pursue pharmacy, nursing, or any other health care career, they will encounter these gaps in care and the need for innovation to increase access.

But he reminded them that they are up for the challenge.

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“Healthcare is a service and a profession. „When people are faced with illness, they can feel very vulnerable,” she said. „At that time, they want compassion, the expertise of health professionals, effective drugs, vaccines and devices, and the ability to afford the care they need.”

Entering the health care field isn’t just a job — it’s a calling, Weihbacher said.

„People rely on everyone in the chain from bench to bedside,” he said. “Our dependents are not anonymous. They can be our own family, relatives or friends. But they are all important. … We need people like you. … You can make an impact, you bring new ideas, new energy, new passion, and you help people.”

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