Summit News

Big Pharma still hungry for biotech deals

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Even amid aggressive cost-cutting, many big pharmaceuticals companies continue to seek biotech acquisitions in the hope of finding new drugs to replace those lost to generic competition.

But they will have to pay more than they did a year ago. The average value of U.S. biotech companies is increasing as funding flows back into the sector after a drought caused by the credit crisis.

At the start of the year, 51 percent of the 328 publicly traded U.S. biotech companies had a market value of less than $100 million each, according to Burrill & Co, a San Francisco-based investment bank. Now that figure is only 41 percent.

“This clearly shows that conditions have improved considerably since the initial capital markets meltdown,” said Steven Burrill, the firm’s chief executive.

Financings and partnership deals brought in more than $13 billion for the biotech sector in the third quarter, up 147 percent from the same period a year ago.

Biotech has increasingly become the engine room for innovation in the drug industry, as highlighted by strong results this year from trials of Human Genome Science Inc's HGSI.O lupus drug Benlysta and Dendreon Corp's DNDN.O cancer drug Provenge.

Most big pharmaceutical companies are trying to conserve cash as they prepare for the loss of revenue from big-selling products that are set to lose patent protection over the next few years. And several, including Merck & Co MRK.N and Pfizer Inc PFE.N are busy consolidating big mergers.

Even so, executives at the Reuters Health Summit said they need to make acquisitions and form partnerships to fill holes in their pipeline of new products, even if the terms are not quite as advantageous as they were a year ago.

“We continue to see business development as a major contributor to future growth,” said Jeffrey Kindler, chief executive of Pfizer, “and we have the capacity to do it.”

Some 233 mergers and acquisitions were announced in the healthcare industry during the third quarter, and though volume was in line with the prior quarter, the number of dollars spent rose 38 percent to $38.4 billion, according to a recent report from Irving Levin Associates.

Merck, which has averaged 50 biotech deals a year since 2003, says it plans to keep up the pace and possibly double that number, even as it prepares to cut around 16,000 jobs as part of its $41 billion merger with Schering-Plough.

Richard Clark, the company’s chief executive officer, said the company would remain cautious and “fiscally responsible” in its acquisition strategy but sees partnerships and acquisitions as crucial to future growth.

“We examine 5,000 to 6,000 possibilities a year,” he said.

John Lechleiter, the chief executive of Eli Lilly & Co LLY.N, said that though the company must be "mindful" of its cash position, it would consider deals in the $1 billion to $2 billion range, a level also indicated by Merck's Clark.

Not everyone, though, is in deal-making mode.

Lars Sorensen, the chief executive of Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk NOVOb.CO, the world's biggest maker of insulin, said the company already has the geographic reach it needs, and there are no diabetes drugs it is interested in acquiring.

“In the diabetes area, what we are interested in are new protein-based drug targets and there are very few,” he said. “We know everyone in the world so it is very hard for us to find acquisitions or licensing deals in diabetes.”

While the company could do a number of small deals in the areas of hemophilia and inflammation, the company has no plans for anything big.

“Don’t expect any major mergers or acquisitions from us,” Sorensen said. “We believe we have enough on our plate that we can sustainably grow our business for a number of decades going forward.”