Chiron/PowderJect: US Snaps Up Europe's Best
Chiron's acquisition of PowderJect is the most recent sign that the vaccines industry is coming of age, taking the field's only two mid-sized players up among the top-ranking Big Pharma. This deal was largely about infrastructure. But it suggests any European biotech with a valuable asset--be it product or distribution network--is an attractive takeover target for US firms.
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The £542 million ($959 million) that Chiron Corp. spent acquiring PowderJect Pharmaceuticals PLC in mid-2003 was a move by the US company to get its hands on PowderJect's thriving Fluvirin influenza vaccine business and, oddly enough, bulk up its infrastructure on its home soil.
Celltech could not get the deal value it expected for its late-stage anti-inflammatory treatment--perhaps indicating a Big Pharma reluctance to pay the kinds of prices it has been paying. So UCB struck while it could. Led by new management it seized the opportunity to make what is a transforming move for the midsized European company-from undersized primary care group into a specialist, biopharma firm ranked alongside--indeed above--European biotech bellwether, Serono. If it works, the deal provides a model for other mid-sized European pharmas, looking for a way out of the primary care trap and, like UCB, to use mid-size advantages to power a sustainable long-term strategy.
The spinout of PowderJect's DNA vaccine technology following that company's acquisition by Chiron in mid-2003 was no surprise-these powder-injection assets are far too early-stage in the context of Chiron's vaccines pipeline. But newly minted PowderMed is no ordinary start-up. Despite the high-risk nature of its technology, the firm begins life with £20 million from four blue chip VCs, Big Pharma endorsement provided by GSK, five projects expected to enter the clinic within two years, and management that has overseen development of these products for more than six years.