Biogen Idec has appointed Exelixis boss George Scangos to be its new chief executive, a move which has raised the eyebrows of some analysts.

Dr Scangos, who has served as president and chief executive of Exelixis since 1996, is taking over from James Mullen who stepped down after heading up the firm for over 20 years. The last few years of his tenure had seen Mr Mullen face criticism from investors, notably Carl Icahn, over the poor stock performance of the company.

Whether the billionaire likes the cut of Dr Scangos’ jib remains to be seen. Biogen noted that under his leadership, Exelixis has “built and advanced a pipeline of 14 clinical compounds and forged numerous strategic partnerships”. However the South San Francisco-based company has no commercial products as yet and earlier this year cut its staff by 40%, or 270 employees.

Biogen chairman William Young said the appointment is the culmination of a “comprehensive selection process to identify the best leader” to take the firm “to the next level”. He added that the board, which has three Icahn supporters on it, ”is unanimous in its view that he is the ideal fit”.

Mr Young went on to say that “science is at the heart of our business, and George has an exceptional scientific background, as well as significant operational expertise and a strong leadership track record”. Dr Scangos, 62, was a professor of biology at Johns Hopkins University for six years before joing Bayer’s US unit in 1987 where he started as a staff scientist. He became senior vice president of R&D at Bayer Corp and was also head of Bayer Biotechnology.

The new man said that “we have significant opportunities to advance the commercial business” by improving the performance of multiple sclerosis blockbusters Avonex (interferon beta-1a) and Tysabri (natalizumab) and the rheumatoid arthritis and cancer drug Rituxan (rituximab), while preparing for the potential launch of five products over a three-year period, “strengthening existing partnerships and forging new alliances”.

Another priority, Dr Scangos said, is to advance the pipeline “which includes hiring a passionate and talented new head of R&D”. He added that “I also plan to instill a sense of urgency in every aspect of the business”.

Analysts greeted the news with qualified enthusiasm. In a research note, Geoffrey Meacham at JPMorgan Securities said Dr Scangos has “extensive experience managing a research organisation that we think we be valuable to steering Biogen’s research efforts”. However, he noted that “a lack of commercial experience could create challenges in managing the increasing competition in MS and bringing additional products to market”.

The appointment did not seem to thrill investors as Biogen shares ended the day down 2.6% at $47.45. Meantime, Michael Morrissey, 49, currently president of R&D at Exelixis, will succeed Dr Scangos, effective July 15.