Skip to Content
Uncategorized

Where Have All the Billions Gone?

Big Pharma is on a buying spree to obtain smaller biotech companies after having spent billions on R&D and failing to produce new drugs.

Where have all the billions gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the billions gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the billions gone?
Pharma has spent them every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

(Sing to the tune of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”–with apologies to Pete Seeger.)

For years, large pharmaceutical companies have mostly shied away from buying biotech companies. They have preferred to develop their own drug pipelines and to license or colicense new meds in development at biotech companies. The common wisdom has been that biotechs are nimbler and more creative than the lumbering giants, which have used the smaller companies as a kind of farm-team system to feed new compounds to the big leagues.

This trend began to shift last year when Novartis purchased Chiron, and Merck of Germany bought Serano. Now Astra-Zeneca has snatched up Medimmune for $15.6 billion, in what may be the largest purchase ever of a U.S. biotechnology company.

This is not a financial blog, so I won’t bore you with finance-speak or details about companies you may or may not have heard of. The point is that folding the best of biotech into large companies that are having serious trouble developing their own drugs may be a great idea for investors cashing in, but it may end up killing off creativity in drug making.

It’s hard to imagine that huge companies, spending billions on R&D with little to show for it, will absorb the creativity and entrepreneurial drive of the smaller companies. Maybe they will, though this seems to be less a motivation for new ideas than a fear of what these companies might do.

In 2005, Big Pharma companies spent $40 billion on R&D in a year in which the FDA approved only 20 drugs. Comparatively, in 1996, $17 billion was spent, and 53 new drugs were approved. Add to this the fact that many billion-dollar drugs are about to lose their patent protection on blockbuster drugs such as Lipitor, and one can understand why Big Pharma is throwing around money while it still has it.

Possibly, these bioyoungsters will infuse new blood into their elders rather than the other way around. Otherwise, we may see the pharmaceutical industry continuing to be unable to transform the raft of discoveries and science developed in the past 10 years into useful products.

There are many reasons for this failure, not the least of which is that the science is turning out to be far more difficult to turn into drugs than anyone anticipated in this age of genomics. But one still has to wonder if the industry is up to the task in its current incarnation.

Deep Dive

Uncategorized

Five poems about the mind

DREAM VENDING MACHINE I feed it coins and watch the spring coil back,the clunk of a vacuum-packed, foil-wrappeddream dropping into the tray. It dispenses all kinds of dreams—bad dreams, good dreams,short nightmares to stave off worse ones, recurring dreams with a teacake marshmallow center.Hardboiled caramel dreams to tuck in your cheek,a bag of orange dreams…

Work reinvented: Tech will drive the office evolution

As organizations navigate a new world of hybrid work, tech innovation will be crucial for employee connection and collaboration.

Investing in people is key to successful transformation

People-related factors like talent attraction and retention and clear top-down communication will determine whether your transformation progresses or stalls.

be a good example concept
be a good example concept

Be a good example

"It was in the newspaper, but the towers fell the next day, and what I’d done was quickly lost."

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.