M&A slows to a trick­le in 2017, but Big Phar­ma could be on deck for mega deals

Free-flow­ing cash for star­tups, sky-high val­u­a­tions, and un­cer­tain­ty about tax re­form led to un­ex­pect­ed stag­na­tion in M&A this year. But big deals could be on the hori­zon as large phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies get squeezed to de­liv­er top line growth.

Af­ter a lack­lus­ter 2016 (thanks to un­cer­tain­ty in an elec­tion year), many ex­perts in the in­dus­try pre­dict­ed — with Pres­i­dent Trump firm­ly seat­ed in the White House — that we would see an uptick in merg­ers and ac­qui­si­tions in 2017. They were wrong. Be­sides Gilead’s near­ly $12 bil­lion move on Kite, 2017 was rather qui­et on the M&A front, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port by Eval­u­atePhar­ma’s EP Van­tage.

Ex­perts are now won­der­ing if ac­quir­ers are on stand­by, wait­ing to see what will hap­pen with tax re­form be­fore mov­ing for­ward on big pur­chas­es. And it makes sense. It’s es­ti­mat­ed that big phar­ma and biotech has rough­ly $171 bil­lion held in oth­er ter­ri­to­ries to avoid the 35% cor­po­rate tax rate here in the US. If that mon­ey can come back over thanks to repa­tri­a­tion, then these com­pa­nies will have a lot more play mon­ey to take shop­ping.

Oth­er rea­sons for the slow­down in M&A this year could be climb­ing val­u­a­tions of small and mid-sized bio­phar­mas — es­pe­cial­ly in hot ar­eas of de­vel­op­ment. Some­times those big buy­outs came back to bite the buy­ers (look­ing at you, Medi­va­tion).

One of the per­haps most in­ter­est­ing rea­sons for the slow M&A could be the in­dus­try’s rel­a­tive­ly easy ac­cess to cap­i­tal. As you can see in the chart be­low, ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists have been giv­ing out big­ger chunks of cash to com­pa­nies — rem­i­nis­cent of the boom times of 2014. When com­pa­nies can raise their own mon­ey for more ex­pen­sive, lat­er-stage de­vel­op­ment, then they’re less like­ly to look for buy­ers. On top of big ven­ture deals, the IPO mar­ket has been hot this year, with even pre­clin­i­cal com­pa­nies go­ing pub­lic with rel­a­tive suc­cess.

But this deal hia­tus, both in 2016 and 2017, is like­ly putting pres­sure on big phar­mas, the Van­tage re­port says. Com­pa­nies re­ly­ing on old­er drug fran­chis­es are par­tic­u­lar­ly im­pli­cat­ed.

“Com­pa­nies that re­ly on lega­cy prod­ucts in ar­eas like di­a­betes or heart dis­eases are in huge trou­ble,” Lon­car In­vest­ments CEO Brad Lon­car told EP Van­tage. “In these ar­eas, pay­ers have the pow­er. This might mean we see M&A, and that would be the top in­gre­di­ent for hav­ing a good 2018.”

These large phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies are the ones that saw some less-than-stel­lar fi­nan­cial per­for­mance ear­li­er this year. Missed ex­pec­ta­tions for the growth prospects of Cel­gene and Bio­gen, for ex­am­ple, caused a sig­nif­i­cant sell­off.

The EP Van­tage re­port spec­u­lates that poor fi­nan­cial per­for­mance of some big play­ers could mean bar­gain prices for some M&As down the road.

“So if val­u­a­tions of big cap biotechs re­main de­pressed, and progress on tax re­form emerges, then per­haps 2018 will see more, larg­er deals. Pfiz­er is still most fre­quent­ly named as an en­thu­si­as­tic big buy­er – fa­vorite tar­gets for the ru­mor mill cur­rent­ly in­clude Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb and Bio­gen. And ex­ec­u­tives from oth­er large play­ers – Mer­ck & Co and Gilead for ex­am­ple – have re­cent­ly made it clear that they are look­ing around.”

In short, this re­port in­di­cates that small and mid-stage com­pa­nies will con­tin­ue to see high val­u­a­tions, easy ac­cess to cash, and a friend­ly IPO mar­ket — as long as un­fore­see­able macro­eco­nom­ic fac­tors don’t tank the mar­ket. Large-cap com­pa­nies, how­ev­er, may see shrink­ing val­u­a­tions, af­ford­able price tags, and more sig­nif­i­cant con­sol­i­da­tion (should tax re­form go their way).

In a sec­ond big set­back for Covid-19 an­ti­body treat­ment hopes, Re­gen­eron halts en­roll­ment for more se­vere pa­tients

Regeneron has just delivered more bad news for the hope that neutralizing antibodies could be used to treat patients with more severe forms of Covid-19.

The New York biotech said today that an independent monitoring committee recommended halting enrollment of patients who need high-flow oxygen or mechanical ventilation in one of the trials on their antibody cocktail, after finding “a potential safety signal” and “an unfavorable risk/benefit profile.” The news comes a week after the NIH scrapped a trial of Eli Lilly’s Covid-19 antibody after finding it was having little effect on an initial cohort of hospitalized patients.

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Bris­tol My­er­s' Richard Har­g­reaves pays $70M to launch a neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion al­liance with a star play­er in the ma­chine learn­ing world

Bristol Myers Squibb is turning to one of the star upstarts in the machine learning world to go back to the drawing board and come up with the disease models needed to find drugs that can work against two of the toughest targets in the neuro world.

Daphne Koller’s well-funded insitro is getting $70 million in cash and near-term milestones to use their machine learning platform to create induced pluripotent stem cell-derived disease models for ALS and frontotemporal dementia.

As­traZeneca sells off heart fail­ure and hy­per­ten­sion drugs to Chep­lapharm for $400M

Out with the old and in with the new: AstraZeneca is selling off two heart failure and hypertension drugs to Germany-based Cheplapharm, bagging $400 million and making way for development in other areas.

Cheplapharm paid $200 million for the European rights to Atacand (candesartan cilexetil) and Atacand Plus (candesartan cilexetil and hydrochlorothiazide) back in 2018. They’re now doubling that amount for commercial control in more than 70 countries.

Patrick Soon-Shiong at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, Jan. 13, 2020 (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Af­ter falling be­hind the lead­ers, dissed by some ex­perts, biotech show­man Patrick Soon-Sh­iong fi­nal­ly gets his Covid-19 vac­cine ready for a tri­al. But can it live up to the hype?

In January, when dozens of scientists rushed to start making a vaccine for the then-novel coronavirus, they were joined by an unlikely compatriot: Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire doctor most famous for making big, controversial promises on cancer research.

Soon-Shiong had spent the last 4 years on his “Cancer Moonshot,” but part of his project meant buying a small Seattle biotech that specialized in making common-cold vectors, called adenoviruses, to train the immune system. The billionaire had been using those vectors for oncology, but the company had also developed vaccine candidates for H1N1, Lassa fever and other viruses. When the outbreak began, he pivoted.

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Ar­cus and As­traZeneca part­ner on a high stakes an­ti-TIG­IT/PD-L1 PhI­II can­cer study, look­ing to im­prove on a stan­dard of care

For AstraZeneca, the PACIFIC trial in Stage III non-small cell lung cancer remains one of the big triumphs for AstraZeneca’s oncology R&D group. It not only made their PD-L1 Imfinzi a franchise player with a solid advance in a large niche of the lung cancer market, the study — which continues to offer data on the long-range efficacy of their drug — also helped salve the vicious sting of the failure of the CTLA-4 combo in the MYSTIC study.

No­var­tis buys a new gene ther­a­py for vi­sion loss, and this is one pre­clin­i­cal ven­ture that did­n't come cheap

Cyrus Mozayeni got excited when he began to explore the academic work of Ehud Isacoff and John G. Flannery at UC Berkeley.

Together, they were engaged in finding a gene therapy approach to pan-genotypic vision restoration in patients with photoreceptor-based blindness, potentially restoring the vision of a broad group of patients. And they did it by using a vector to deliver the genetic sequence for light sensing proteins.

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Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks at the Rose Garden, May 26, 2020 (Evan Vucci/AP Images)

Eli Lil­ly lines up a block­buster deal for Covid-19 an­ti­body, right af­ter it failed a NI­AID tri­al

Two days after Eli Lilly conceded that its antibody bamlanivimab was a flop in hospitalized Covid-19 patients, the US government is preparing to make it a blockbuster.

The pharma giant reported early Wednesday that it struck a deal to supply the feds with 300,000 vials of the drug at a cost of $375 million — once it gets an EUA stamp from the FDA. And once that 2-month supply deal is done, the government has an option on another 650,000 doses on the same terms — which could potentially add another $812 million.

No­var­tis CEO Vas Narasimhan signs off on a $231M deal to try some­thing new in the R&D fight against SARS-CoV-2

Patrick Amstutz was baptized by pandemic fire early on.

He and colleagues attended the notorious Cowen conference in early March that included some of the top Biogen execs who helped trigger a superspreader event in Boston. Heading back to his post as CEO of Molecular Partners in Switzerland, the outbreak was sweeping through Italy, triggering near panic in some quarters and creeping into the voices of people he knew, including one friend on the Italian side of the country.

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News brief­ing: Ax­o­vant faces months of de­lay on lead Parkin­son's gene ther­a­py; Chi­nese CAR-T biotech nabs $100M

One of Axovant’s top gene therapy prospects for its second act is hitting a roadblock that could push its clinical timelines back by almost a year.

In an update, the biotech said it was informed about delays in CMC data and third-part fill-finish issues around mid-October by its manufacturing partner, Oxford Biomedica. Axovant has been developing a suspension-based process for the Parkinson’s drug; with that taking longer than expected, it now believes “it is unlikely that its planned randomized, sham-controlled trial of AXO-Lenti-PD will enroll patients by the end of calendar year 2021.”