Drug Innovation and Pharma M&As: A Recent Perspective

The 21st CEO Survey 2018 of PwC highlights a curious contradiction. This is based on what the Global Pharma Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) had articulated regarding their business outlook for 2018 and beyond. The report says: Despite highly publicized hand wringing over geopolitical uncertainty, corporate misbehavior, and the job-killing potential of artificial intelligence, the CEOs expressed surprising faith and optimism in the economic and business environment worldwide, at least over the next 12 months.

As the survey highlights, beyond 2018, CEO sentiment turns more cautious. They expressed more confidence in revenue growth prospects over the longer term than the immediate future. In the largest pharma market in the world – the United States (US), acquisitions appeared to be the core part of the 2018 growth playbook for the CEOs. More of them plan to drive growth with new Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) for this year. The US CEOs intent in this area came out to be more than their peers globally.

Thus, in this year we may expect to witness several M&A deals, at least by the pharma majors based in the US. As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the success of any strategic M&A process should get clearly reflected in its revenue, profit and cost synergies over a period of time, consistently.

In this article, I shall try to look back, and attempt to fathom the net outcome of M&As in the pharma sector. Its key drivers for the global and Indian pharma players are somewhat different, though. In this piece, I shall focus on the M&A activities of the global companies, and my next article will focus on the Indian players in this area.

2018 – best start to a year of healthcare deal making:

The finding of the 21st CEO Survey 2018 that more global pharma CEOs plan to drive growth with new M&A for this year, has been reiterated in the January 22, 2018 issue of the Financial Times (FT). The article titled “Big Pharma makes strongest start to M&A for a decade” writes: “Healthcare companies have announced almost $30bn of acquisitions since the beginning of the year in the sector’s strongest start for deal making in more than a decade, as Big Pharma scrambles to replace ageing blockbusters by paying top dollar for new medicines.”

Big names involved and the reasons:

On February 18, 2018, an article published by the BSIC wrote, the M&A value in the healthcare sector recorded its strongest start to a year in more than a decade, excluding 2000, with almost USD32bn of global deals announced since the start of January 2018. Of these USD32bn, Sanofi SA and Celgene Corporation performed almost a combined USD26bn value of acquisitions for the American Bioverativ Inc. the cell therapy provider Juno Therapeutics, respectively.

As many would know, the FT also wrote in the above piece that Sanofi is trying to offset declining sales of its top-selling insulin – Lantus, which has lost market share following the introduction of cheaper biosimilar versions. Celgene is preparing for the loss of patent protection on its top cancer medicine, Revlimid, which will face generic competition from 2022 at the latest.

Is new drug innovation a key driver of M&A?

The core intent of M&A is undoubtedly creating greater value for all the stakeholders of the merged entity. Nevertheless, such value creation predominantly involving the following two goals, revolve around new drug innovation activities, as follows:

  • New value creation and risk minimization in R&D initiatives
  • Acquisition of blockbuster or potential blockbuster drugs to improve market share and market access, besides expanding the consumer base.

There could be a few other factors, as well, that may drive a pharma player to go for a similar buying spree, which we shall discuss later in this article.

However, in the international scenario, with gradually drying up of R&D pipeline, and the cost of drug innovation arguably exceeding well over USD 2 billion, many companies try to find easier access to a pipeline of new drug compounds, generally at the later stage of development, through M&A.

Thus, I reckon, one sees relatively higher number of big ticket M&As in the pharmaceutical industry than most other industrial sectors and that too, very often at a hefty price.

At a hefty price?

To give an example, the year 2018 has just begun and the pharma acquirers have agreed to pay an average premium of 81 percent – a number that is well above the 42 percent paid on average in 2017, according to Dealogic. The examples are the 63.78 percent bid premium paid by Sanofi SA on Bioverativ Inc. and the 78.46 percent premium paid by Celgene Corporation to acquire Juno Therapeutics.

A key reason of paying this kind of high premium, obviously indicate an intent of the acquirer to have a significant synergy in drug innovation activities of the merged company.

Do drug innovation activities rise, or decline post M&A?

A paper titled “Research: Innovation Suffers When Drug Companies Merge”, published by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) on August 03, 2016 answers this question. This research involves, pre and post M&A detailed analysis of 65 pharma companies. After detailed scrutiny of the data, the authors wrote: “Our results very clearly show that R&D and patenting within the merged entity decline substantially after a merger, compared to the same activity in both companies beforehand.”

Having also analyzed companies that were developing drugs in similar therapeutic areas, but hadn’t merged, the paper recorded: “We applied a market analysis, the same one used by the European Union in its models, to analyze how the rivals of the merging firms change their innovation activities afterward. On average, patenting and R&D expenditures of non-merging competitors also fell – by more than 20% – within four years after a merger. Therefore, pharmaceutical mergers seem to substantially reduce innovation activities in the relevant market as a whole.”

‘Other critical objectives’ may also drive pharma M&A:

As I had indicated before, besides attaining synergy in innovation activities at an optimum cost through M&A, there may also be other important drivers for a company to initiate this process. One such example is available from Sanofi-Aventis merger in 2004.

Just to recapitulate, Sanofi was formed in 2004 when Sanofi-Synthélabo (created from the 1999 merger of Sanofi and Synthélabo) acquired Aventis (the result of the 1999 merger of Hoechst and Rhône-Poulenc).

A June 2016 case study of the Sanofi-Aventis merger titled ‘Does M&A create value in the pharmaceutical sector?’, and published by HEC Paris – considered a leading academic institution in Europe and worldwide, brings out the ‘other factors’ driving pharma M&A.

The research paper says that Sanofi-Aventis deal ‘is the perfect example of the paramount importance that external factors have on M&A activity, which sometimes are more critical than the amount of value created from a particular deal.’ It further says, ‘facing a changing pharmaceutical industry (heightened competition and consolidation trend), Sanofi-Synthélabo decided to merge with Aventis as a defense strategy.’

This strategy ensured, even if the merger had not ended being a successful one, it would achieve the following two ‘other critical factors’:

  • Manage to save Sanofi-Synthélabo from being acquired and disappearing.
  • Comply with the French government pressure to create a national champion in the pharma industry, to ultimately benefit the French population.

Conclusion:

In the pharma business, M&A has now become a desirable strategic model for shareholder value creation. In the global perspective, one of the most important drivers for this initiative is, greater and less expensive access to new drug innovation or innovative new drugs, beside a few others, as discussed above.

In-depth expert analysis has also shown that “R&D and patenting within the merged entity decline substantially after a merger, compared to the same activity in both companies beforehand.”  Moreover, as other independent researchers have established that inside the merged companies, there’s a great deal of disruption in many areas, including people, besides the global drug market getting less competitive with declining number of players.

Pharma M&As may well be any stock market’s dream and could a boost the merged company’s performance in short to medium term. But the important points to ponder are:  Does it help improve drug innovation or its cost related issues over a reasonably long time-frame? Does it not ultimately invite even more problems of different nature, creating a vicious cycle, as it were, putting the sustainable performance of the company in a jeopardy?

By: Tapan J. Ray  

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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