Over the past few years, the bottom-line number on R&D spending among the big 10 pharma companies--about $70 billion--has remained about the same. But behind the steady collective figure lies deep changes that continue to fundamentally alter the landscape of drug research and development around the world.
Last year, Merck ($MRK) was finally forced to abandon its steady-at-the-helm approach and admit that it had a big R&D problem. The solution was straight out of the Big Pharma restructuring playbook: Downsize, lay off thousands, find your core areas of expertise and get your new R&D chief to send deal teams out in search of academic and industry partnerships.
We haven't heard much about those deal teams, though. Perhaps that's because Merck's R&D chief, Roger Perlmutter, would rather build up an industry-leading effort on immuno-oncology, while waiting for some of its late bloomers in the pipeline to finally deliver. Perlmutter has a lot to prove after getting the big shove at Amgen ($AMGN)--and he's fully capable of doing it.
Pfizer ($PFE) would end the year acknowledging that its new launches weren't nearly as successful as needed, with not much to boast about in the pipeline besides palbociclib. Little did anyone expect that it would soon go on to suggest the first new megamerger in years, picking out struggling AstraZeneca ($AZN)--which is desperately working on a grand turnaround scheme of its own--as the perfect partner for a global player looking for a low-tax zone to shelter in. Pfizer's gone out of its way to reassure jittery U.K. pols that they plan to keep a major R&D operation in the country, but after earlier big deals like this, widespread chaos and confusion tends to reign once the deal is done. And there are no such assurances in place for the U.S. or Swedish research outfits.
GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) would sweep up 5 new approvals in '13, happy to assert that its reform effort from 4 years ago was paying off while unhappily watching its most innovative prospects flunk out of their Phase III exams. Then the executive team turned around and decided to lateral their cancer drug portfolio to Novartis ($NVS), which was eager to beef up an area where it does its best work in exchange for vaccines--a field they never mastered.
Roche ($RHHBY) steamed along, continuing to earn praise for its work at Genentech while trying to reform its Basel-based pRED under John Reed. The jury is still out on that one, but Reed's team earns an A for positive attitudes and some hard work at the deal table.
Thwarted from executing a major restructuring in France, which has been a virtual nonperformer in R&D in recent years, Sanofi ($SNY) would have a tough year at Genzyme while enjoying a close relationship with a booming Regeneron ($REGN). And this year it would make the unexpected choice of going much deeper into RNAi with Alnylam ($ALNY) as its Big Pharma rivals continued to exit the field. But Sanofi chief Chris Viehbacher is betting that even if he can't inspire good R&D inside the company, he can buy it from someone else. And that's not a bad strategy.
J&J ($JNJ) would continue to rely on partnering for big approvals, fleshing out a new global effort aimed at dozens of new deals a year. Eli Lilly ($LLY) would go another year without an approval, bracing as the company went over the patent cliff. This year Lilly is hacking out about a billion dollars from its research budget, promising that new approvals will start to turn things around. And Amgen joins the list this year, continuing to pump more cash into R&D as it looks less and less like the world's biggest biotech and more and more like another aging pharma giant with an energetic dealmaker at the helm.