Now here's a piece that I'm looking for good reasons to dismiss. And I think its author, Jim Edwards, wouldn't mind some, too. You've probably heard that Valeant Pharmaceuticals is making a hostile offer for Cephalon, a company that's dealing with some pipeline/patent problems (and, not insignificantly, the recent death of their founder and CEO).
Valeant's CEO, very much alive, is making no secret of his business plan for Cephalon should he prevail: ditch R&D as quickly as possible:
“His approach isn’t one that most executives in the drug business take,” (analyst Timothy) Chiang said in telephone interview last week. “He’s even said in past presentations: ‘We’re not into high science R&D; we’re into making money.’ I think that’s why Valeant sort of trades in a league of its own.”
. . .Pearson’s strategy and viewpoint on research costs have been consistent. When he combined Valeant with drugmaker Biovail Corp. in September, he cut about 25 percent of the workforce, sliced research spending and established a performance-based pay model tied to Valeant’s market value.
“I recognize that many of you did not sign up for either this strategy or operating philosophy,” Pearson wrote in a letter to staff at the time. “Many of you may choose not to continue to work for the new Valeant.”
Valeant does, in fact, make plenty of money. But my first thought (and the first thought of many of you, no doubt) is that it's making money because other people are willing to do the R&D that they themselves are taking a pass on. In other words, there's room for a few Valeants in the industry, but you couldn't run the whole thing that way, because pretty soon there'd be nothing for those whip-cracking revenue-maximizing managers to sell. Would there?
But we don't have to go quite that far. Edwards, for his part, goes on to wonder (as many have) whether the drug industry should settle out into two groups: the people that do the R&D and the people that sell the drugs. This idea has been proposed as a matter of explicit government policy (a nonstarter), but short of that, has been kicked around many times. Most of the time, this scheme involves smaller companies doing the research, with the big ones turning into the regulatory/sales engines, but maybe not:
If you agree that there ought to be a division of labor in the pharma business — that some companies should develop drugs and then sell those products to the companies that have the salesforces to market them — then this says some interesting things about recent corporate strategy moves among the largest companies. Pfizer (PFE) is downsizing its R&D operations and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) is said to be on the prowl for a ~$10 billion acquisition.
Merck, on the other hand, is doubling down on its own research and stopped giving Wall Street guidance in hopes of lessening the scrutiny paid to its R&D expense base..
The heralds of this restructuring of the industry haven't quite called it this way, but instead splitting from each other, perhaps the big companies will divide into two camps (Merck vs. Pfizer) and the smaller ones, too (Valeant vs. your typical small pharma). Prophecy's not an exact science - Marx thought that Germany and England would be the first countries to go Communist, you know.
For my part, I think that there are game-theory reasons why a big company won't explicitly renounce R&D. As it is, a big company can signal that "Yes, we'd like to do a deal for your drug (or your whole company), but you know, there are other things for us to do with the money if this doesn't work out." But if you're only inlicensing, then no, there aren't so many other things for you to do with the money. Everyone else can look around the industry and see what's available for you to buy, and thus the price of your deals goes up. You have no hidden cards from your internal R&D to play (or to at least pretend like you're holding). This signaling, by the way, is directed to the current and potential shareholders as well: "Buy our stock, because you never know what our brilliant people are going to come up with next". That's a more interesting come-on line than "Buy our stock. You never know who we're going to buy next." Isn't it?
And that's a separate question from the even bigger one of whether there are enough compounds out there to inlicense in the first place. No, I think that big companies will hold onto their own R&D in one form or another. But we'll see who's right.