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 Our ‘economy depends on brain power’ and Northeastern grads are equipped to lead the way in health science, Biogen CEO says

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

Chris Viehbacher, president and CEO of Biogen, gave 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 commencement.

An ALS diagnosis is usually a death sentence. But a young father of three in New Zealand with ALS went from struggling to walk to being able to move on his own again, thanks to a new medicine from Biogen to treat patients with the disease and a rare genetic mutation.

Northeastern University trustee Chris Viehbacher, president and CEO of Biogen, relayed this anecdote to Bouve College of Health Sciences graduates on Saturday. But, he reminded them, when it comes to health science, there are always new challenges.

“As I stand with you this morning, there is a funeral service for a dear friend of mine who passed away this week due to ALS,” Viehbacher said when addressing graduates, friends and family members at Matthews Arena on Northeastern’s Boston campus. “But it’s just a reminder that as much as we have done, there is just so much work left to do.

But, he said the hundreds of Bouve students in the audience are just the ones equipped to continue innovations in the health realm with co-ops, research experience and classes from Northeastern under their belts.

“I can tell you that, as an employer, your academic studies have provided you with an excellent foundation of knowledge and principles,” he said. “At Biogen, we have 20 to 30 interns every year and I know from my own company how valued Northeastern students are. As you take your next steps toward a professional career, you can be confident that you will be able to learn and achieve great things.”

Viehbacher, also a parent to a 2018 Northeastern graduate, spoke at the ceremony honoring both undergraduate and graduate students receiving their degrees, drawing on his own deep background in fusing innovation and public health.

Viehbacher joined Biogen as its president, CEO and member of the board of directors in November 2022. Before that he spent years working for large pharmaceutical and entrepreneurial biotech companies, including 20 years at GlaxoSmithKline and six years as global CEO for Sanofi. He recently co-founded Gurnet Point Capital, a Cambridge-based health care investment fund, which in turn has fueled other creative ventures.

“You have blazed a path for innovation that advances health and the public good,” said Bouve Dean Carmen Sceppa while presenting Viehbacher with a citation. “Your achievements embody your career spent leading unprecedented change on a global stage.”

Over the course of his career, Viehbacher said he’s seen a number of global public health crises. In the late 1980s, he worked in Hamburg, Germany, with a company developing an antiviral to treat AIDS. Later, he worked with the minister of health in France to bring low-cost antivirals to Africa and joined Dr. Anthony Fauci — who he described as “already a rock star back then” — on a trip to Uganda to see what the United State was doing to stop the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

“I learned that innovation must be coupled with equitable access,” Viehbacher added.

Around this time, Viehbacher said biologics began to dominate the health sphere with Biogen leading the way with the goal of being the first biotechnology company on the East Coast of the U.S. The city of Cambridge initially balked at the idea of “Frankenstein medicine,” but eventually came around, allowing the city to become a hub of biopharmaceutical research, he added. Technologic advances with genetics since then have allowed for new approaches to fighting cancer and treating autoimmune diseases.

Viehbacher reminisced on this to highlight the importance of continuous discovery and innovation in health sciences especially as millions of people still face untreatable ailments.

“As we look back in history, the Industrial Age transformed economies as financial capital and machinery were developed,” he said. “In today’s world, our economy depends on brain power. Engineering and tech are certainly areas which can convert economic brainpower into economic power.”

But that is also true for health sciences, Viehbacher said.

“You have seen the significant investments in research at Northeastern,” he said. “I had the honor of helping to inaugurate the new EXP research facility this year. Academic research is translated to medical and biopharmaceutical research, produces new treatments and improves the health and thus productivity of society. … So we have opportunity, we have challenges, and we have tremendous need.”

He also reminded students that there are always new questions to solve in health and science, offering those in the field the chance to always explore, whether they’re trying to discover more about why certain treatments work for certain mutations of ALS or to find ways to improve access to healthcare. 

The latter is especially important to bear in mind, Viehbacher said, as disease affects everyone regardless of age, race, gender, income status or any other factors. And whether graduates pursue pharmacy, nursing or any other realm of healthcare, they will encounter these gaps in care and the need for innovation to increase access.

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

“Health is a service and industry like no other. When people face disease, they can feel at their most vulnerable,” he said. “At that point, they want the compassion, expertise of healthcare professionals, effective medicines, vaccines and devices and the ability to afford the care they need.”

Entering the field of health is not just a job — it is a calling, Viehbacher said.

“People depend on every one of us in the chain from bench to bedside,” he said. “The people who depend upon us are not anonymous. They could be our own family, our relatives or our friends. But they all matter. … We need people like you. … You can have an impact, you will bring new ideas, new energy, new passion and you will help people.”