In general, biotechnology is defined as the use of biological systems or living organisms for the development of its products. The same is true for biopharmaceuticals, also known as biotech drugs, or biologics. Biotech drugs are also called large molecule drugs because they have a large, complex molecular structure and are more difficult and expensive to produce. In contrast to that, small molecule drugs are chemical-pharmaceutical products with less complexity. While these ‘classic’ pharmaceuticals still make up around 90 percent of all drugs available on the global market, biopharmaceuticals already generate nearly 40 percent of global drug sales. Several smaller biotech companies, previously only known to industry insiders, have become apparent lately through their discovery and development of COVID-19 vaccines.
Amgen, based in Thousand Oaks, California, is the world's largest pure-play biopharmaceutical company by revenue. However, since the acquisition of U.S.-based Genentech in 2009, Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche has been one of the leading global companies based on biotech revenues. It is not easy to define a company as biotech or classic pharma since most of the pharma giants already have a mixed portfolio of products with biotech-derived drugs making up an increasing share of total revenues. Moderna, the developer of one of the first two widely used COVID-19 vaccines, made it into the global top 10 of biopharma companies based on market capitalization during the pandemic year 2021.
Biologics already dominate
When it comes to top-selling drugs, biologics already have a predominant position compared to classic, small molecule drugs. Most of the world’s leading drugs based on revenue are biotech-derived. Illinois-based company AbbVie is the manufacturer of the longstanding best-selling biotech drug worldwide - Humira, a drug targeting autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. Another biopharmaceutical, Merck’s cancer drug Keytruda, is expected to take over the leading position by 2026 at the latest. Oncology is typically very prominent among biotech companies and cancer treatments make up the largest single part of biopharmaceutical research and development. However, biotech-derived COVID-19 vaccine Comirnaty, developed by Germany-based BioNTech and U.S. giant Pfizer, cut the record in 2021 by becoming the best-selling medical product ever. With almost 60 billion dollars of combined annual revenues, this record is expected to stay unrivaled for quite some time.
The role of innovation
Small, super-innovative biotech enterprises are important drivers for the whole drug discovery and manufacturing industry. Acquiring such a company means getting specific know-how and promising drugs in the pipeline (without having to self-invest into sophisticated R&D). Thus, these companies are often targets of large pharmaceutical companies for acquisitions or at least some form of alliance. A very good example is what we have seen in the development of COVID-19 vaccines where small and mid-sized biotech firms or research institutes have been the vanguard of progress, sometimes being partnered with established big pharma companies (e.g. Pfizer with BionTech, AstraZeneca with Oxford).
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