Consultants, Wall Street analysts and pundits have long urged pharmaceutical companies to cut back on internal research and buy drugs from small biotech companies instead. Invoking various theories about economies of specialization and the efficiency of small firms, they’ve argued that it is cheaper and less risky to buy from the outside than to develop on the inside. This argument has been repeated so often and for so long—I first heard it in 1985—that it has almost become beyond dispute.
There’s just one problem: It’s wrong. In my own research, I compared the costs over a 20-year period of drug development at large pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms. I found no meaningful difference on average between what large pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies spent to successfully develop a drug. The blanket generalizations about biotech firms being more efficient are unfounded.