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Top Glaxo scientist defects to join Jeff Bezos’s bid to defy ageing

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Hal Barron GSK - GSK
Hal Barron GSK - GSK

Dame Emma Walmsley's campaign to reignite growth at GlaxoSmithKline by focusing on cutting-edge drug research has suffered a heavy blow with the resignation of Hal Barron, the superstar scientist she headhunted and paid more than herself.

Mr Barron has quit Glaxo to join Altos Labs, a biotech start-up reportedly backed by Jeff Bezos that is attempting to reverse the ageing process.

Mr Barron is the highest-paid director at Glaxo, receiving a higher salary than Dame Emma every year since he became chief scientific officer in late 2017.

He was paid a total of $11.2m (£8.2m) for 2020, compared to Dame Emma's £7m, according to the company’s most recent annual report.

His hiring was seen as a coup for Dame Emma, who had brought him in to tackle what she described as a culture that was “too slow” and often “rather bureaucratic”. GSK opened an office in San Francisco so Mr Barron could continue to live there with his family.

His departure comes just days after GSK's plans to split its consumer health arm and float that division were thrown into disarray by news of an offer from Unilever.

The FTSE 100 pharma giant has been aiming to separate its consumer health business, which owns brands such as Sensodyne and Panadol, by this summer.

The spin-off would allow it to focus on its pharma and vaccines operations and ramp up investment in its drugs pipeline. It has rejected Unilever’s offers, saying they undervalue the consumer division.

GSK said Tony Wood, an internal candidate who is senior vice-president and head of medicinal science and technology, will take over as chief scientific officer. He will assume full accountability for research and development when Mr Barron leaves on August 1.

Mr Barron will remain on Glaxo’s board as a non-executive director, including supporting the company's research and development plans.

Dame Emma said: "Hal’s appointment to Altos Labs is a unique opportunity for him and we are pleased that GSK will continue to benefit from his expertise at the board and in support of R&D. Altogether, these changes provide us with a clear pathway for continued momentum in R&D to deliver our new ambitions for growth and scale impact for patients.”

Emma Walmsley, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline - Kevin Dietsch/Consolidated News Photos
Emma Walmsley, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline - Kevin Dietsch/Consolidated News Photos

His departure will, however, raise concerns from investors given Mr Barron's strong scientific expertise. Some have said that knowledge is crucial to the company given its leadership by Dame Emma, who comes from a consumer health background.

GSK has been attempting to bolster its scientific credentials to address criticism from investors such as activists Elliott and BlueBell. They have called for the remaining GSK business to consider other candidates for chief executive other than Dame Emma when the split is completed later this year.

Late last year, GSK said it was hiring Phil Dormitzer, Pfizer's vaccine guru, as its global head of vaccines research and development. The appointment came after Glaxo failed to produce its own Covid jab following a series of setbacks earlier in the pandemic.

Shares fell 1.4pc to £16.76, valuing the company at £84bn. The stock has risen by almost a fifth in the past 12 months.