JPM16 winds down: Valeant's pricing promise, J&J's small deal focus, & a murky biopharma outlook
Wednesday was the final day of the Biotech Showcase while Thursday will be the last for the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference. Pretty much all of the major players have made their presentations, leaving mostly smaller and newer firms for the final slew of meetings.
As BioPharma Dive has noted in our ongoing coverage from San Francisco this week, this year's conferences have been decidedly more downbeat compared to the relentless hype of 2015's meeting (with a few notable exceptions, such as the advent of the Cancer MoonShot 2020 and National Immunotherapy Coalition).
Still, top biopharma execs telegraphed several significant points about future corporate strategy on Wednesday. Here's what you need to know.
Embattled Valeant's interim CEO promises a new pricing paradigm
Valeant Pharmaceuticals took 2015's biggest public beating of any biopharma company not associated with one Martin Shkreli thanks to a controversy involving the specialty pharmacy Philidor Rx and outrage over the company's generic drug price hikes. Then, at the end of the year, the firm faced another major setback when CEO J. Michael Pearson was hospitalized with severe pneumonia and was forced to take indefinite medical leave.
Pearson was first replaced with a three-person executive committee before former Valeant CFO and current board member Howard Schiller was named interim chief. Which means that Schiller had the daunting task during JPMorgan of assuring investors that the company's future was still bright despite its lead exec's health woes and intense scrutiny of its pricing and distribution models.
Schiller is a longtime biopharma vet, so it's not too much of a surprise that he was able to strike a reassuring tone on Wednesday. And he tackled the recent criticisms of his company head-on.
"We will be relentlessly focused on providing easy and affordable access for physicians and patients," said Schiller during Valeant's investor presentation, before adding that the company would be focusing more on new drugs and R&D this coming year and avoid exorbitant price hikes in certain franchises.
Schiller also dished out some more details on its unique 20-year distribution arrangement with Walgreens for its dermatology and ophthalmology portfolios (in addition to the controversial female libido pill Addyi). Despite being a bright spot for Valeant after a tumultuous 2015, he arrangement has raised some eyebrows.
According to Schiller and Walgreens, the first phase of the distribution arrangement will roll out on Friday with Valeant's dermatology drugs before expanding into other sectors over the course of the next six months, and Walgreens will aim to sell the medications at a 10% discount.
Johnson & Johnson doesn't plan on a massive Pfizer-Allergan style deal
Ever since the monster Pfizer-Allergan megamerger was announced at the end of last year, it's been an open question whether or not any other major pharmas or biotechs would step up to make a game-changing acquisition or merger of its own. On Wednesday, one firm said bluntly that it would not: Johnson & Johnson.
That's not to say that the pharma giant has completely ruled out a big deal, CEO Alex Gorsky told Bloomberg. Rather, the company wants to be selective with its significant cash on hand and may prefer to snatch up a promising, earlier-stage firm.
"History would show that value creation in large deals is much more challenging," said Gorsky in the interview. "Because we’re more of an innovation-focused company, the ideal deal for us is early, great innovation, great science, then we scale it, versus going in and simply ripping out costs and trying to find other synergies."
Pfizer: Our CAR-T may have a big advantage over Kite, Juno, Novartis
On an R&D-related note, Pfizer—which promised that its combined pipeline with Allergan is being underestimated during JPM—is indulging in some big talk surrounding its CAR-T ambitions.
The pharma giant struck a deal with French biotech Cellectis last year, which made major headlines for apparently clearing a terminally ill baby girl's leukemia with its "universal CAR-T" therapy. And Pfizer believes that universal nature will give it a major manufacturing advantage even over firms that are further along in the CAR-T R&D process, including Kite and Juno.
While those latter firms' therapies require the extraction of individual patient's T-cells (which are then re-engineered to fight tumors), the Pfizer/Cellectis therapy relies on just one donor whose cells can be used to treat many more (potentially thousands) of patients.
"None of the other companies have that capability," said Pfizer chief Ian Read at JPM. "Therefore they could not go that route."
That's significant considering that the extraction process could drive CAR-T therapy prices to nearly $500,000 per round. It's far too early to tell whether Pfizer would pass any manufacturing savings onto customers—but at the very least, it may be able to enjoy those savings for itself.
Biopharma's 2016 market outlook: Somewhere between mildly bullish to mildly bearish
The final lunch plenary session of the Biotech Showcase 2016 focused on the big question that's been on the backs of every biopharma company's and investor's mind for the last several months: Is biopharma's bull run finally over?
Panel participants were a bit mixed on the answer. But the reigning sentiment wasn't one of extreme optimism (with some exceptions).
Art Pappas of Pappas Ventures and Alex Zisson of Thomas, McNerney and Partners both made interesting observations regarding the relative youth and inexperience of the current crop of both early-stage biotech CEOs and investors. Zisson noted that while previous generations had experienced both bull and bear markets, many of the newer biotech chiefs and money-men had only seen the good times.
Overall, Zisson expressed a bearish sentiment for 2016, lamenting that there are "too many generalists and too few specialists" in the biotech investment and venture sphere, and predicted that IPOs would likely continue the pull-back that began at the end of last year.
Pappas took a different view, largely dismissing the intense focus on biopharma's pricing methods as the "flavor of the month."
"I think we're going to have another great year," he said, noting the FDA's newfound aggressiveness in approving drugs.