The 42nd Annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference brought together thousands of professionals in the biopharma, biotech and MedTech spaces to discuss the latest industry developments and forge new partnerships. Coming off an extremely active Q4 2023, the excitement over what may be in store in 2024 was palpable. However, lingering doubt continued to hover over the minds of many, with concerns about the financing environment, drug pricing reform, and looming gaps in product pipelines. For many, 2023 was an extremely challenging year, with many companies narrowing their strategic priorities and reducing headcount.
Nonetheless, the conference was full of excitement for what is to come, and there is plenty of reason for optimism. Our Freshfields Life Sciences team attended and engaged with many clients and other industry players in discussions on the current state of the industry as well as the outlook for the coming year and beyond. Based on those conversations, we observed the following key trends.
Biopharma M&A Gaining Momentum After Late 2023 Surge
The last quarter of 2023 saw a surge in M&A activity that many industry players predicted would continue into 2024. Major pharmaceutical companies indicated a willingness to deploy significant cash resources to acquire biotech assets. In particular, several major acquisitions were announced on the first day of the conference, including Novartis’ acquisition of Calypso, Merck’s acquisition of immune-oncology biotech Harpoon Therapeutics, and Johnson & Johnson’s acquisition of ADC-focused Ambrx. Notably, many recent acquisitions included contingent value rights (CVRs), which grant shareholders the right to receive additional purchase price based on future performance of the target or its products– a trend that we expect to continue this year. We also expect acquirers to specifically target biotech companies with late-stage assets or assets necessary to fill key strategic gaps, including in targeted autoimmune therapies, cancer therapies, and weight-loss drugs.
The public and private financing markets continue to favor biotech companies holding late-stage assets in promising therapeutic areas, resulting in many biotech companies significantly streamlining their product pipelines in 2023. While the IPO market saw a very slight uptick last year since its drastic slowdown beginning in 2022, movement in this space is still relatively slow, with roughly 20 biotech IPOs in 2023, most of which trade below their IPO price. Our discussions, however, suggested that there is cautious optimism that IPO activity will pick up in 2024. Additionally, biotech is increasingly representing a key portion of the portfolios of private equity firms and other financial sponsors, a trend that is expected to continue this year. On this front, biotech companies with innovative small molecule and cell therapies garnered significant interest.
Future Investment and Strategy
We believe that the factors giving rise to Q4 2023’s deal flurry will sustain deal volume well into 2024. Many biopharma companies are facing challenges to their revenue streams—through patent expirations, the uncertain pricing landscape resulting from the Inflation Reduction Act, the use of government march-in rights, and other pricing pressures. Given the relative immediacy of these challenges, many in the industry are looking for later stage products that are deemed less risky investments to diversify their product portfolios—and they are willing to pay a premium for these assets. With the large volumes of available cash on hand, coupled with external pressures on existing revenue streams, we may continue to see an upward trend in deal activity as big pharmas attempt to address these challenges in the short term through dealmaking.
Strategically, biopharma companies are continuing to focus their efforts on oncology as a key therapeutic area, with particular attention to radioligand therapies and antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs). The lively discussions with respect to radioligand therapies was headlined by Bristol Myers Squibb’s recent acquisition of RayzeBio just prior to the conference. ADCs, particularly in China, were the focus of some of the largest biopharma transactions in late 2023, with Merck and Bristol Myers Squibb inking two pivotal ADC partnerships, respectively. This trend seems likely to continue in 2024, as the number of clinical trials for ADCs in 2023 was nearly ten times greater than in 2013, highlighting the industry’s renewed focus in this technology.
Discussions at the conference also featured the pursuit of next generation weight loss applications for GLP-1 products, traditionally used to treat type 2 diabetes. We expect investors to continue to display a strong appetite for GLP-1 products, which may pave the way for different administrations and disease applications.
Many MedTech companies took the opportunity to showcase updates to their product pipelines in various therapeutic areas. One therapeutic area that came up in conversations as a key future growth area was diabetes. The recent push for glucose monitor use in the diabetic population has spurred innovation in medical wearable technology. For example, Abbott recently emphasized the success of its continuous glucose monitor and integration into certain automated insulin pump systems, and Dexcom unveiled a new health-focused consumer device for diabetics.
Unsurprisingly, AI was also a hot topic of discussion at this conference, particularly in the context of tech companies’ continued interest in the life sciences sector. AI use in drug discovery continues to be a major theme among the recent AI initiatives of tech and life sciences companies alike. For example, Isomorphic Labs announced key partnerships with Eli Lilly and Novartis to use its AI platform to develop small molecule drugs. Chipmaker NVIDIA announced a similar partnership with Amgen, aiming to leverage AI software to support drug discovery efforts. We expect AI to continue to showcase its potential to upend the traditional drug discovery space. These and additional key themes in MedTech are covered here.
2024 is expected to be a pivotal year for the life sciences and MedTech industries, as the financing environment and regulatory conditions increasingly complicate the transactional outlook and innovators assess opportunities to integrate new technologies into their product portfolios through dealmaking to bolster revenue streams. At Freshfields, we continue to track the industry-wide developments that kicked off at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, and our team looks forward to supporting the life sciences and MedTech industries as they continue to make advances towards transforming healthcare in 2024.