Biotech and Pharma Deals in 2020

by | Apr 5, 2021

Biotech and pharma deals in 2020 soared to an all-time high of 1,154 signed deals with $146.3 billion in total value, defying expectations that the global Covid-19 pandemic would hamper dealmaking. Global healthcare and life sciences R&D partnership activity was up 23 percent over 2019 and total deal values rose 31 percent from the previous year, driven in part by advances in technological and molecular understandings of disease pathways, and a drive toward targeted precision medicines.

Biopharma Deal Upfronts and Total Deal Values

We tapped the DealForma database to look at biopharma partnering activity in 2020 in more detail.


The Takeaways – Biopharma Deals in 2020:

  • Big Pharma and Big Biotech continued to dominate the top dealmakers lists, but several mid-stage players joined the top 20 lists, including Incyte, CSL Behring, and Daiichi Sankyo for total upfront payouts, Neurocrine for total value, and Sarepta for total number of deals.
  • Total upfront cash & equity was up 16.8 percent, but average upfront cash and equity fell slightly, down 3 percent compared to 2019.
  • With 276 R&D partnerships focused on Covid-19, the number of infectious disease partnerships skyrocketed 572 percent over 2019, but total values of these deals fell 40 percent, even as the total paid in upfront cash and equity soared 130 percent compared to 2019.
  • Biopharma mergers and acquisitions were active as well. Check out our analysis of 2020 biotech and pharma M&A here.
Top Pharma and Biopharma Partners

Biotech and Pharma Deal Terms

Biopharma R&D partnering median upfront cash and equity paid at signing soared 50 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, but average deal values dropped 3 percent during the same period.

Median Biopharma Deal Upfront Terms

Deals Go Earlier and Larger

Total upfront cash and equity, at $17.4 billion, rose 17 percent for biotech and pharma deals in 2020 compared to 2019. While this looks good on the surface, the money paid at signing accounted for only 11.9 percent of total potential deal values in 2020, compared to 13.4 percent of total potential deal values in 2019. So, while the numbers and potential values were strong, deals were more back-loaded with total potential deal values contingent on the achievement of milestones as licensees made riskier bets on novel platforms where they have more say on targets of interest, and early stage assets where the licensees have more control on development.

Number of Biopharma Partnerships by Stage at Signing

It is interesting to note that median upfront cash and equity for platform deals jumped 95 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, while it fell 33 percent for preclinical assets. Mid- and late-stage assets also commanded a premium with median upfront cash and equity up 50 percent for mid-stage asset and late-stage deals, compared to 2019.

Biopharma Deal Upfront Medians by Stage at Signing

Cancer Remains Leading Deal Target

Biotech and pharma deals in 2020 saw 379 partnerships for cancer as the top therapeutic target for dealmaking, accounting for 38.9 percent of all deals, 55 percent of total deal values, and 57.1 percent of total upfront cash and equity. We have covered this before in detail, and DealForma database users can quickly grab the latest numbers.

Total Deal Values for Top Therapy Areas

Neurology / CNS Deals

Indeed, 8 out of the top 12 deals in 2020 by total deal value focused on cancer as the primary therapeutic area, while 3 focused on neurologic conditions, a fast growing area of unmet need. Total deal values of neurologic partnerships made up 18.7 percent of total deal values in 2020, up 119 percent compared to 2019, with total upfront cash and equity also up 147 percent compared to 2019, in an area that has had its share of failures but that is beginning to hold promise for success with recent advances in technological innovation.

Neurology CNS Deal Activity

Top Biopharma Deals in 2020 by Upfront Cash & Equity

Licensor Licensee Stage at Signing Therapeutic Area Technology Total Deal Value ($M) Upfront Cash & Equity ($M)
Seagen Merck Phase II Cancer Antibody Conjugate 4200 1600
Sage Therapeutics Biogen Phase III Neurologic Small Molecule 3125 1525
Denali Therapeutics Biogen Phase I Neurologic Small Molecule 2150 1025
Daiichi Sankyo AstraZeneca Phase I Cancer Antibody Conjugate 6000 1000
MorphoSys Incyte Phase III Cancer Antibody 2000 900
Blueprint Medicines Roche Phase I Cancer Small Molecule 1702 775
Genmab AbbVie Phase I Cancer Antibody 3900 750
Vaccibody Genentech (Roche) Phase I Cancer Vaccine 1230 515
Dragonfly Therapeutics Bristol Myers Squibb Phase I Cancer Immunotherapy 475 475
uniQure CSL Behring Phase III Hematologic Gene Therapy 2050 450
Arcus Biosciences Gilead Sciences Phase II Cancer Immunotherapy 2000 375
Sangamo Therapeutics Biogen Preclinical Neurologic Gene Editing/CRISPR 2720 350
Source: DealForma database. Financials based on disclosed figures through 2/5/2021

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Looking Ahead

There’s every reason to think 2021 will match 2020 numbers for biopharma R&D dealmaking. A strong pace in the first half of the first quarter of 2021 has seen 132 announced collaborations with total deal values of $18.8 billion. The success of virtual partnering last year will only accelerate opportunities to partner in the years ahead with a new crop of recently launched companies in with exciting new technologies and promises of tackling once intractable diseases.

This article is a sample from the DealForma Quarterly Deal Trends Report provided to database customers. Data for this analysis was compiled using the DealForma biopharma deals database. We applied initial filters for partnerships and deal subtypes, therapeutic areas, modalities, asset stages at signing, and deal payment terms. From there, we exported the data to Excel and used pivot tables and charts to do the rest. All data are based on publicly disclosed figures. We invite you to answer interesting questions on biopharma business development and licensing using our data and carefully curated profiles on deals, pipelines, companies, funding, and business executives by visiting to schedule your personalized demo.

Marie Daghlian is a freelance writer and editor who reports on the business of biotechnology and healthcare technologies and on rare diseases for Global Gene’s Rare Daily. She also covers the industry for Big4Bio, a daily newsletter focused on the four major biotech centers in the United States.

Chris Dokomajilar is the Founder / CEO of DealForma and has been an industry analyst for over a decade. He analyzed the data and produced the charts for this article. More about Chris.

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