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Eli Lilly, Verastem and the Defenders of Shareholder Value

Verastem doesn't have much history at all. The company was founded less than two years ago, nor has management displayed the longstanding recalcitrance of Eli Lilly. Nonetheless, the back-to-back "deprioritize and discover" press releases of last week make me question how management thinks about spending shareholders' money. Investors should keep a close eye on Verastem's decisions.

As investment timeframes across the hedge fund world shrink -- short-termism that understandably alienates management teams focused on the long view -- one investment strategy strikes me as particularly attractive: Constructive activism.

Two recent examples suggest this style, in which a fund seeks to invest alongside with, and elicit change from, underperforming or inefficient companies, may be undergoing a renaissance in healthcare. First, shareholders should thank the investors that pushed Amylin Pharmaceuticals (AMLN) into its $7 billion sale to AstraZeneca (AZN) and Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY). Activist investors saved Amylin's management from itself. Without prodding, the company would have kept on failing on its own.

My second example comes from the most unlikely of places, Vancouver-based QLT (QLTI). A slate of activist investors appointed to the company's board of directors recently announced a host of shareholder-friendly actions: Refocusing R&D on the most promising programs, divesting non-core assets, reducing bloated headcount, and -- gasp -- returning $100 million of capital to shareholders. Every investor with whom I have discussed the changes at QLT has been impressed that this long-beleaguered biotech backwater now appears to be at the industry's forefront in terms of R&D optimization and shareholder value creation. Other biotech companies making consistently bad decisions -- Celgene's (CELG - Get Report) plan to conduct a Phase 3 trial of apremilast in rheumatoid arthritis despite a failed Phase 2 study is a recent example -- should sit up and take note.

The umbrella-like "drug development is risky" defense is old and tattered, and never made much sense in the first place. Of course, some risks are impossible to avoid, but others require only common sense and the willingness to call shenanigans even when it's unpopular. Investors need to be more willing to stand up and demand that management justify or abandon questionable decisions and bad outcomes. After all, it's the investors -- not the executives -- that own the company.

Disclosure: Sadeghi has no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this article.

Follow Nathan Sadeghi-Nejad on Twitter.
Nathan Sadeghi-Nejad has 15 years experience as a professional health-care investor, most recently as a sector head for Highside Capital. He has worked on the sell side (with independent research boutiques Sturza's Medical Research and Avalon Research) and the buyside (at Kilkenny Capital prior to Highside). Sadeghi-Nejad is a graduate of Columbia University and lives in New York. You can follow him on Twitter @natesadeghi.
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