2010: Partnering takes on fresh urgency

Chris Viehbacher (photo) wasn't playing around when he said that Sanofi-Aventis ($SNY) was going to turn to outside partners for more of its innovative thinking. He spent much of 2010 breaking the old mold on drug research while trying to forge a new one. In the process, he became the world leader in innovation.

Whether this new approach actually works has yet to be seen. New programs take years to bear fruit--bitter or ripe. But there's no denying the influential role he's playing.

In recent months Sanofi has set out to link up with Chinese scientists on new cancer programs and inked a deal with Harvard, all while tying up with a slew of biotechs--an $800 million deal with Avila offers just one example--and other pharma companies like Merck KGaA on new pacts. Meanwhile, he's circled the wagons around cancer, diabetes and ophthalmology. Not content to restrict the company, he's shown a big interest in acquiring a rare disease pipeline with his play for Genzyme.

In one fashion or another, Viehbacher has helped set the pace for an industry hungry to find a workable business strategy. Big Pharma companies have taken out their checkbooks this year, pledging billions in milestones for therapies that promise to deliver true medical advances. And as companies like Pfizer and Eli Lilly experienced a string of bitter clinical setbacks, the value of innovative programs has grown, from the preclinical stage right through Phase III.

The patent cliff isn't out on the horizon. It's here, and the new meme is to find strength in numbers.