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European Biopharmaceutical Review

Return of the Blockbuster?

Last week, a book review landed on my desk – Blockbusters by Harvard Business School Professor, Anita Elberse. The book is based on a several decade longitudinal study of the entertainment industry, but there are examples of its applicability across multiple sectors.

Her thesis is that the small project is overrated and that the blockbuster effect is now bigger than ever. The book argues that the blockbuster strategy – investing in potential winners with broad market appeal and yielding higher returns – is becoming the dominant success strategy in many markets.

Food for Thought
The blockbuster prescription flies in the face of the current biopharma industry fascination with niche indications, as opposed to broad-market drugs. Moreover, common business wisdom might suggest that diversification and placing a larger number of smaller bets should lead to greater overall value creation. This got me thinking – what if we are running headlong down the wrong path? Is the blockbuster drug really less relevant today than a decade ago?

Naysayers point to the ‘blockbuster trap’ – the need to place everincreasing bets on the most promising concepts. Expenditures to procure and develop winning opportunities can severely impact the bottom line, if the programme fails. However, we also know that marketing a blockbuster drug actually creates advantage and value in several ways.

Success Strategies
Bigger bet programmes generate higher revenue and profits, and create excitement within the company.

Success breeds success; whereas a niche product is a winner-takes-all proposition. Moreover, eschewing blockbusters means that companies risk missing out in the quest for the most promising external projects. Scale is critical to success, and the added cashflow of a blockbuster programme allows for a higher level of development, marketing support and additional resources to address stratification of an all-inclusive population. Paradoxically, it is the font that makes all the smaller bets possible.

Branding and Partnering
Blockbusters build brand and channel power. They provide the ‘tent poles’ that support broader-based brand and franchise awareness in all target markets. Media – and particularly social media – are important across the board. While a niche product can be efficiently marketed to specialist healthcare providers, the broader public is left out of the mix.

Furthermore, externalisation of pipelines provides de-risking of candidate programmes but raises the ante for acquisition and licensing. Innovative early-stage companies would likely place their allegiance with marketing partners who are aligned with a bigger upside potential.

Talent Drive
Talent is the lifeblood of the industry. Creative workers live project-by-project – each one could be their last. Again, the ‘tent poles’ provide greater perceived shelter and longevity for hiring and retention. In the absence of blockbusters, it is hard to get the best advantage out of marketing and sales efforts.

So why make the smaller bets at all? One reason is that they are perfect for hedging – smaller bets can be test cases for marketing and therapeutic approaches. Moreover, many of the current so-called ‘niche’ programmes address a target pathway for a known, rare genetic disease. The innovators hope that the pathway will be adapted to a franchise of ‘sequels’ in other indications which, combined, will equate to a blockbuster.

Programme sourcing will also establish closer links with venture capital and other intermediaries so that they become part of the extended external pipeline. This will maintain their reputation in order to continue attracting the interest of talented entrepreneurs in the external sphere.

A New Era
Blockbusters are alive and well. In the past, they were all about a firm’s therapeutic area franchise and the intent was clear. Today, the advocates of a rare disease or niche strategy are focused on pathway hypotheses, which are clearly implicated in the disease etiology. However, nichepathway drugs also form part of the bigger picture, and can be cast in leading roles for other indications. In this way, a new kind of multi-indication blockbuster franchise is born.

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About the author

Emile Bellott is a New England-based consultant with over 25 years of experience in drug discovery, development and pharmaceutical outsourcing.
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