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High-value R&D partnerships of 2021

Credit: khwanchai phanthong / Alamy Stock Photo

Overcoming the challenges presented in 2020, big pharma companies have already signed a number of high-value partnerships in 2021, many of them focusing on the development of new therapies for cancer. With the help of DealForma we present the highest-value R&D partnerships signed so far this year.

Of the top ten deals (Table 1) seven were announced at the discovery/platform stage and many followed the common trend of big pharma licensing emerging technology platforms from smaller companies. Eight of the top ten deals were for oncology applications, illustrating the continued popularity of this therapeutic area for partnerships, and a handful of these were for immuno-oncology (IO) therapies. IO deals included Merck & Co.’s potential $1.8 billion deal with Artiva, which was the third highest-value deal of the year, and saw the big pharma company gain access to two off-the-shelf chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-engineered natural killer(NK) cell therapy candidates for solid tumors. Off-the-shelf cell therapies that address the logistical challenges of producing first-generation CAR-T cell therapies are attracting interest, and NK cells could have benefits such as a reduced risk of causing graft-versus-host disease compared with unmodified donor T cells (Biopharma Dealmakers, B15-17, September 2020).

Aside from oncology, the other therapeutic areas featured in the top ten deals both involved Takeda. In one of the deals, Takeda licensed Ensoma’s Engenious vector platform technology, which enables in vivo gene modification without the need for prior stem cell collection, to discover candidates for up to five rare disease targets. In the other, Takeda collaborated with Anima Biotech to discover mRNA translation modulators for neurological diseases.

Table 1 | Top ten R&D biopharma therapeutics and platforms partnerships in 2021 by deal value

Seller and buyer, respectively

Date announced

Stage at signing

Total deal value (upfront payment) ($ million)

Deal summary

BeiGene, Novartis

January 2021


2,200 (650)

BeiGene signs deal with Novartis to co-develop and commercialize the anti-PD-1 antibody tislelizumab in countries including the USA, Canada and the UK.

QED Therapeutics, Helsinn Group

March 2021

Phase 3

2,000 (n/d)

Helsinn Group partners with the BridgeBio Pharma affiliate QED Therapeutics to develop their FGFR1–3 inhibitor infigratinib for cancer.

Artiva Biotherapeutics, Merck & Co.

January 2021


1,881 (30)

Merck signs deal with Artiva to develop and commercialize their two off-the-shelf solid tumor NK-CAR cell therapies at the IND stage.

KSQ Therapeutics, Takeda Pharmaceutical

January 2021


1,700 (100)

KSQ Therapeutics partners with Takeda to develop immuno-oncology therapies identified through its CRISPRomics discovery platform.

Loxo Oncology (Eli Lilly), Merus

January 2021


1,660 (60)

Using its Biclonics platform Merus aims to discover T cell re-directing antibodies for cancer treatment, which Loxo will take into further development.

Molecular Templates, Bristol Myers Squibb

February 2021


1,395 (70)

Harnessing its engineered toxin (ETB) technology, Molecular Templates partners with Bristol Myers Squibb to develop oncology therapeutics.

Ensoma, Takeda Pharmaceutical

February 2021


1,350 (100)

Ensoma signs licensing partnership with Takeda allowing it to use its Engenious vectors to develop therapies for up to five rare disease indications.

Artios Pharma, Novartis

April 2021


1,320 (20)

Novartis signs deal with Artios Pharma to identify DDR targets using their discovery platform to combine with its radioligand therapies as potential treatments for cancer.

Anima Biotech, Takeda Pharmaceutical

March 2021


1,220 (120)

Takeda collaborates with Anima to discover mRNA translation modulators for neurological diseases using its Translation Control Therapeutics platform.

Biond Biologics, Sanofi

January 2021

Phase 1

1,125 (125)

Biond Biologics partners with Sanofi to develop its humanized IgG4 antagonist antibody targeting the ILT2 receptor to treat solid tumors.


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