Looking back the years of the biotech revolution

The work will focus on the radical change that the pharmaceutical world experienced, known as the biotech revolution. All the major companies changed their business model, but how the big pharma reacted to the potential of the biotechnology varied significantly, and this resulted in a different return on investment and general success over the years. The organizational strategy needs to be ready to take advantage when opportunities knock, but innovation is challenging and also disruptive; consequently embarking such a radical change is not a decision taken in one day, but it requires a gradual process in three steps (Source Prof. Julian Birkinshaw, London Business School).

1. Building awareness (sensing). It is the analysis phase to understand better if and how the new technology is an opportunity

2. Building capability (responding). Define how to be capable of using the new technology. For the pharma, the decisional point is if invest in R&D or buy the capabilities from outside with M&A.

3. Building commitment (scaling). The full implementation of the new technology; the toughest step.

The biotech revolution was fully developed only in the ‘90s when its real potential was clear after decades but it started in the early ‘70s. In those years the first signs of interest in biotech were seen  with the first companies as Genentech, Amgen and Biogen to receive funding from the venture capitalists. These were the years of the first success for the products made in the body (insulins, EPOs etc). With the slow time of the pharma, the research on the Monoclonal Antibodies that initiated in the ‘70s pay-off after decades. The first fully human MAb was adalimumab. It will be interesting to analyze some practical example on how the big pharma (JnJ, MSD, Eli Lilly, Roche, Novartis, and GSK, Abbott) reacted to the revolution and the difference return on investment that the different reaction generated (i.e. investment in R&D and/or in M&A). In general the companies that moved earlier were more successful than the others that followed later. For being early adopters of the new technology, the M&A paid off and was broadly applied instead of the development in R&D and other internal change that required more time. The exception was Abbott, that is shown as a sort of exception of the rule early move stands for more success. It is incredible to consider how unpredictable was the bet of the investment done in the pharma: for instance the press release commenting the news that Abbott was about to buy Knoll for $6.9B (Dec 2000) reported that the analysts “believe the medicine (adalimumab) could have annual sales of $500 million or more”. You can easily find how more is the “or more”.


Author(s): Daniele Palmisani

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