Big Pharma targeting smaller companies, with megadeals now out of favor

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Pharmaceutical companies are racing to snap up innovative biotechs with a flurry of bolt-on purchases, shying away from the megadeals that once marked the sector as they attempt to fill looming gaps in their pipelines.

Novartis AG agreed to buy MorphoSys AG on Monday to gain an experimental medicine for blood cancer, which fits with its own. The deal is one of six worth more than $1 billion that have been announced this year alone. Others include Sanofi’s planned purchase of the U.S. biotech Inhibrx Inc. and Johnson & Johnson’s agreement for Ambrx Biopharma Inc.

The acquisitions often target a specific drug that either allows the company to enter into a new disease area or significantly bolster an existing focus, as was seen in GSK Plc’s offer for asthma-drug maker Aiolos Bio Inc.

“We’re seeing bolt-on acquisitions which are more product-centric,” said Wouter Joustra, general partner at venture capital firm Forbion, one of the founding investors in Aiolos. The acquisitions often relate to products that are late stage, as companies “look to plug certain holes in revenue projections due to losses of patent exclusivity,” he said.

MorphoSys brings an experimental drug for a rare form of blood cancer called pelabresib that’s completed the most stringent phase of testing.

Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co. and Switzerland-based Novartis were the most active in the past 12 months, with seven and six deals respectively, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Among Lilly’s acquisitions was a $1.4 billion deal for radiopharmaceutical company Point Biopharma Global, a purchase of obesity drug developer Versanis Bio for up to $1.9 billion, a $309 million deal for Sigilon Therapeutics Inc. and a $470 million buy of Emergence Therapeutics.

Meantime, pharmaceutical companies appear to be shying away from mega-deals, wary that “if they do these bigger acquisitions they are more likely to face regulatory pushback,” Joustra said.

Case in point: Amgen Inc.’s acquisition of Horizon Therapeutics for $28.3 billion was waylaid by U.S. regulators, who warned in May 2023 of “rampant consolidation” in the industry. The largest deal from the last months was Pfizer Inc.’s acquisition of Seagen for $43 billion, which was an outlier in terms of scale.

Drugmakers have made no secret of their desire to target bolt-on deals as they seek to spend spare cash. Novartis Chief Executive Officer Vas Narasimhan told Bloomberg TV last week that the Swiss company had it sights on targets of $5 billion or less. GSK’s CEO Emma Walmsley said in January that the company is looking for acquisitions to bolster its core business.

Some of the same drugmakers are doubling down on prescription medicines, shedding businesses they view as peripheral. Under Narasimhan, Novartis has spun off two units: eye care company Alcon Inc. and generic-drug maker Sandoz Group AG. GSK opted to do the same with its consumer-health business Haleon Plc, and now French drugmaker Sanofi is also considering such a split.

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