The top 15 biopharma licensing deals of 2020

The overall value of biopharma deals last year almost equaled 2019's tally of $41.1 billion. (Getty/Natee Meepian)

What were the most sought-after assets when biopharma companies went shopping for licensing opportunities last year? Oncology, and more specifically immuno-oncology programs, dominated our list of the highest-value deals of 2020.

Cancer-related assets accounted for more than half (eight) of the top 15, with four in the cancer immunotherapy area, demonstrating that biopharma's appetite for this area is far from sated. Collectively, the cancer deals had a value (biobucks included) of almost $24 billion out of a total of just over $40 billion overall.

More than half the value of those cancer deals came from the top two, AstraZeneca/Daiichi Sankyo and Merck & Co/Seattle Genetics, both of which involved antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs), a class that has been driving both licensing and M&A activity in the last couple of years.

The overall value of the deals was fractionally down from 2019's tally of $41.1 billion, and it followed the same pattern, with cancer assets the most commonly sought after and the most valuable for a second year running.

The value of upfront payments rose sharply, however, to $10.2 billion from around $8.5 billion in the prior year, which could suggest that licensees are having to dig deeper to secure assets.

Central nervous system therapies were also prominent in 2020, with four deals. Notably, though, three of those were from a single company—Biogen—which is a specialist in that area. The number reflects Biogen's ongoing efforts to bulk up its pipeline as it waits for a go/no go decision from the FDA for Alzheimer's disease candidate aducanumab, which remains a high-stakes gamble.

That said, all three of Biogen's deals—with Sage, Sangamo and Denali Therapeutics, worth around $8 billion altogether—are high risk, too, given the challenges of operating in neurosciences. A hefty $2.8 billion of that total was paid upfront.

The only other companies on the list that entered into more than one deal were Merck & Co. and AbbVie. The two companies signed two apiece—totaling $7 billion and $5.8 billion, respectively—all in the cancer category. Platform deals covering multiple assets were also popular for the second year running—making up seven of the 15 top deals.