The Differences Investors Should Know Between Biotech Companies and Pharmaceutical Manufacturers
In mid-June of this year, the stock market seemed to have changed. The oil sector that had been up for most of the year began trending down, and most other industries that had been hard hit began moving up in a mid-year “V” shape. The new leader replacing oil was biotech, which had been one of the hardest hit at the beginning of the year. It makes sense that biotech trades with its own cycles – it’s a very different sector. There is reason to believe that fundamentals favor the biotech sector now, below we discuss the nuances of these very interesting companies, and explain how they are different than other drug companies..
With biotech stocks, regulators, financiers, the highly educated, geniuses, technology, and investors all come together to help people in the most important way – life and health. For investors, it provides its own set of challenges, and at least two possible rewards. If an investor uncovers the stock that has the right mix of science, money and regulatory approval, they may not only cash in like few other sectors, but also be part of improving the health of generations to come.
Above, I did use the word “possible”. This is true of all stocks in all sectors, but the volatility in the biotech sector is a demonstration of the adage that for bigger potential rewards, one would have to increase their risk. Companies in this industry, often startups with great patents, burn through millions of dollars, often with zero earnings, and with any potential for earnings years off and contingent on being right about their science and the products it can provide. This means stock selection in biotech requires a deeper understanding of the company and potential for its work than in other sectors.
What’s included in the Biotechnology Sector?
Biotechnology focuses on novel drug development and clinical research aimed at treating diseases and medical conditions.
They are almost always unprofitable, and many have no revenue at all. In fact, some stock analysts would suggest that the main distinction between a biotech and a pharmaceutical company lies in profitability. Biotechnology is often characterized as being more research and development than manufacturing. They serve as incubators for the ideas that lead to the next “miracle” cures. But, drug development has a long development timeline. A successful candidate can take a decade or more to go from idea to available medicine. That’s if it is among the roughly 10% of prospective candidates that reaches approval for use.
Why would anyone invest in a company that is developing a pipeline of potential products that each have about a 10% chance of approval? Because breakthrough drugs, and the potential for breakthroughs, each step forward on the path toward approval often provides a huge upward move in the stock price. Even if not eventually approved. Conversely failure to move forward often comes with a rapid decline from disappointment.
Differences Between Biotech and Pharmaceuticals
There is a lot of overlap and a gray area between what is biotech and what is pharmaceutical. Here are some guidelines of where the differences often lay.
Biotechnology ventures tend to be more entrepreneurial pursuits with a lot on the line for the success of an idea, while pharmaceutical companies have an ongoing business and can better gauge and manage business risk. One reason is pharmaceutical companies often have a large diversified portfolio of approved drugs they market. They may also have drugs in various stages of research and development, but these costs are usually investments in future products using current revenue.
A biotechnology firm is often based on “new” science and driven to develop a useful and profitable application for the science. An example of a growing segment of biotech is biopharma which develops drugs originating living organisms.
Large pharmaceutical companies often pay stable dividends to shareholders, this is rare in companies that fall under the biotech umbrella, if there are earnings it may be reinvested in moving forward the study of drugs in development. Many biotechs’ strength is to explore and develop, not to market the successful result. Large pharmaceutical companies, like Johnson and Johnson (JNJ)or Eli Lilly (LLY) are marketing machines, they look to smaller biotech to be an incubator to keep their portfolio of products fresh.
The two industries also stand apart when it comes to valuation and business evaluation. Models and valuation derived from cash flow are quite relevant in assessing pharmaceutical stocks. While many analysts gamely attempt to construct discounted cash flow models for early-stage biotechs, the reality is that success is often thumbs-up or thumbs-down (“drug works” or “drug doesn’t work”).
The FDA Has Final Say
As the regulatory body that approves new drugs for the U.S. market, as well as issues permits for human clinical trials, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the gatekeeper for every biotech firm. Investors should have some understanding of the FDA process and requirements or follow an analyst covering the sector that does. In order to get FDA approval, biotechs must establish a sufficient body of information that the drug is safe and effective. This is generally done through a series of at least three clinical trials.
If the trials meet the goals for safety and efficacy, the company files a request for approval called a New Drug Application (NDA). If the NDA is approved, the FDA sets the date a decision will be made by on the application.
A biotech’s pipeline is the future of the company. Investors focus a great deal on the number of entrants in the pipeline, the stages of study they are at, and the overall science, and competing products (if any). It’s critical to establish valuation forecasts.
Different biotech companies tend to operate in different stages of a product’s development. The stages are, most commonly, preclinical testing, enabling studies, clinical trials, and biologics licensing. A company that is focused on the early stage of research and development will conduct preliminary research to determine whether an idea may successfully be used against a disease or ailment. It attempts to answer, “can this technology become a product?”. This step requires translating the technology into a product. Preclinical testing is the phase of product development when a company must show that its proposed product is safe. They must also determine what the pharmacokinetics (PK) pharmacodynamics (PD) are. PK shows what happens to a drug once it enters the body, ie: how quickly its absorbed, distributed, metabolized, and excreted. Studies done for the express purpose of convincing the FDA to approve the start of clinical trials in humans are called Investigational New Drug (IND)-enabling.
Once a startup has received approval from the FDA to begin clinical trials for their product, they progress through a series of phases depending on how their product fares. These phases are:
Phase 1 This first trial’s main purpose is to determine that the product is safe for use in humans. The number of participants is kept as small as possible, and may be limited to patients who are farther along in a disease state or who have exhausted other options for treatment.
Phase 2 The second phase continues to confirm that the product is safe, but increases the number of participants and tries to determine the optimum dose and regimen.
Phase 3 Typically the last clinical trial phase and is designed to determine whether the treatment is truly effective, and is expanded to include enough people so the potential side effects are more likely to be captured in the data.
The biologics license application (BLA) is the process by which a biologic that has successfully completed clinical trials applies to the FDA to be sold to the public. A new drug application (NDA) is the same process, but for pharmaceuticals.
Biotech investing can be very rewarding. Investors need to understand the company and the risks, and also the stage in the pipeline and the success of recent trials. Failed attempts by companies in this sector at devising the next wonder drug outnumber successes. One success may easily make up for some failures for investors. With research into the company and even reliance on trusted analysts that specialize in biotechs, an investor can increase their chances of uncovering oversized profits. We encourage you, if you are not signed up for Channelchek and the research by Noble Capital Markets equity analysts delivered to your inbox each morning, to take the time and register with us now.
Managing Editor, Channelchek