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These pharmaceutical companies are the top inventors and innovators

April 6, 2020, 12:55 PM UTC

The 2020 Pharmaceutical Invention and Innovation Indices, compiled by IDEA Pharma, were generated prior to the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic and do not relate to what any pharmaceutical or biotech company is doing in relation to that particular challenge. There is a huge amount of work going into the existential threat posed by this virus, something that we have seen before. Perhaps the AIDS crisis represents the closest analogue—an industry that rallied quickly and produced treatments which sustain lives today. However, we all want to know more, at a period of uncertainty. The difference between putting out an idea, or bringing forth a viable product, is the difference between invention and innovation: Put simply, some companies are better at one than the other.

As in the Parable of the Talents, the question most pertinent to the question of “productivity” in the pharmaceutical industry is not “How much do you have?” but “If you gave the same product to two different companies, which would do the best with it?” That was the simple question first asked 10 years ago, with the Pharmaceutical Innovation Index—a ranking of which companies have been best at adding value to their pipelines over the past five years. It fits a classical definition of innovation as a measure of return on invention—separating the idea from its execution.

$770 billion

Combined global revenue for the top 30 pharmaceutical companies in 2019

At a time when innovation is needed more than ever, this lesson is critical. The history taught to us in tales of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk tends to celebrate their ideas, whereas it is their execution, their organizations, that brought inventions to their audience: famously, the 99% perspiration instead of the 1% inspiration. If we put too much faith in inventions to self-determine their own fate, we lose sight of the role that great companies, and their people, play in bringing them, literally, to life.

It is a surprise to many (especially within the industry) that good new drugs can be halted, or lost, in development by the inability of companies to guide them toward their patient destiny via the thousand small decisions, hurdles, and barriers that stand between an idea and its value. With so much excitement surrounding the addition of a promising candidate to a bulging development portfolio, it is an important reminder that companies differ widely in their ability to realize its talent. From tens of thousands of programs in the industry, we gain only 40 to 50 new drugs per year, and only 10 to 15 of those will deliver a return on its own investment. When we realize that, we see an engine like a ’70s Detroit V-8, guzzling fuel but with little effect on progress.

Of 2019 revenues across the top 30 companies, the average return from products launched in the past five years was just 12%. (Some household names derived no significant revenue from “new” products.) When we wonder why drug pricing is such an issue, the natural focus falls upon on annual rises on old drugs. Unfortunately, some companies have no choice—they have no new products to rely upon.

$4.5 billion

Average cost of launching a new drug

However, we don’t want to lose that twinkle: A pipeline full of novelty and meaningful opportunity is what we all want from a pharmaceutical company—potential answers to life’s most important questions. So, after 10 years of focusing on innovation exclusively, the Pharmaceutical Innovation Index gains a forward-looking statement—the Pharmaceutical Invention Index.

The 2020 Index sees biotech mixing it up with the industry’s giants. As with the emergence of more fuel-efficient cars during the oil crisis, we’re seeing new players. With the dominance of rare and orphan disease approvals, more companies are finding they don’t need the traditional sales forces and development pathways. We also see that the industry is looking healthy globally, but Europe—with the exception of the U.K. and Switzerland—is dropping away as a player. —IDEA Pharma


Highlighted companies


Innovation Index rank: 1
Invention Index rank: 10

Number of employees: 97,735
2019 revenue: $63.638 billion
Headquarters: Basel, Switzerland

Roche has jumped seven spots from 2019 to finish first, the first time the Swiss company has done so. The company benefited from multiple clinical data wins, a pair of novel FDA approvals, and many path-leading immuno-oncology firsts by its PD-L1, Tecentriq.


Innovation Index rank: 2
Invention Index rank: 7

Number of employees: 30,000
2019 revenue: $32.75 billion
Headquarters: North Chicago, Ill., U.S.

Runner-up on this year’s Innovation Index (and seventh overall on the Invention ranking) is AbbVie. A model of consistency, AbbVie has held the second position two years in a row.


Innovation Index rank: 3
Invention Index rank: 4

Number of employees: 103,914
2019 revenue: $51.9 billion
Headquarters: Basel, Switzerland

Novartis had a historic year in terms of regulatory approvals notching an unprecedented five novel drugs, helping catapult the company from ninth on the Innovation Index in 2019 to third in 2020. Notably, the company also sustained its Invention ranking—finishing fourth overall in back-to-back years, suggesting a promising future.


Innovation Index rank: 3
Invention Index rank: 9

Number of employees: 3,000
2019 revenue: $4.164 billion
Headquarters: Boston, Mass., U.S.

With the help of the FDA approval of potential blockbuster cystic fibrosis (CF) drug Trikafta, Vertex burst onto the Innovation scale in 2019, as the best-performing biotech by far.

Eli Lilly

Innovation Index rank: 5
Invention Index rank: 3

Number of employees: 33,625
2019 revenue: $22.32 billion
Headquarters: Indianapolis, Ind., U.S.

After experiencing a jump from No. 13 in 2018 to third on the 2019 Innovation scale, Eli Lilly has settled into the fifth spot on this year’s Index. Despite the two-spot drop, Lilly’s Invention scale ranking of third for 2020 implies that the company isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.


Innovation Index rank: 6
Invention Index rank: 1

Number of employees: 61,100
2019 revenue: $24.384 billion
Headquarters: Cambridge, U.K.

After dipping from first in 2018 to No. 12 in 2019 on the Innovation scale, AstraZeneca is back in the top 10. With no new drug or BLA approvals coming in 2019, the vast majority of AstraZeneca’s success came from positive clinical data, and progression in the pipeline, which in turn landed the company in first place on the Invention scale.


Number of drugs in development in over 1,900 clinical studies among the top 30 pharmaceutical companies


Innovation Index rank: 7
Invention Index rank: 24

Number of employees: 2,525
2019 revenue: $4.991 billion
Headquarters: Boston, Mass., U.S.

Leading the charge on the Innovation front for Alexion is the blockbuster drug Soliris, and the emergence of its successor, Ultomiris.

Merck & Co.

Innovation Index rank: 8
Invention Index rank: 7

Number of employees: 71,000
2019 revenue: $46.8 billion
Headquarters: Kenilworth, N.J., U.S.

Coming in at eighth on the 2020 Innovation scale, Merck & Co. has established itself as a perennial top-10 finisher on the Innovation scale. Much of this high can be attributed to the continued success of Keytruda, as the immuno-oncology drug saw multiple approvals in 2019.


Innovation Index rank: 9
Invention Index rank: 17

Number of employees: 6,165
2019 revenue: $2.7 billion
Headquarters: Chuo-ku, Ōsaka Prefecture, Japan

Johnson & Johnson

Innovation Index rank: 10
Invention Index rank: 13

Number of employees: 132,200
2019 revenue: $82.059 billion
Headquarters: New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.


Innovation Index rank: 10
Invention Index rank: 6

Number of employees: 7,126
2019 revenue: $7.863 billion
Headquarters: Tarrytown, N.Y., U.S.

After experiencing steady incremental growth over the past two years, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals finally vaults into top-10 territory. This jump is owing to continued sales growth and clinical approval of drugs such as Dupixent, Praluent, and Eylea. In terms of new drugs, Regeneron has no shortage of prospective treatments circulating through all phases of clinical trials.


average proportion of 2019 revenue that came from DRUGS FIRST APPROVED between 2017–2019 among the top 30 most innovative companies

Bristol-Myers Squibb

Innovation Index rank: 23
Invention Index rank: 2

Number of employees: 30,000
2019 revenue: $26.145 billion
Headquarters: New York, N.Y., U.S.

Bristol-Myers Squibb’s recent acquisition of Celgene was enough to bump the company up to sixth on the Invention scale. With the acquisition of Celgene, BMS got a 2019 novel drug approval in Inrebic, which is used to treat adult patients with intermediate-2, high-risk primary or secondary myelofibrosis.


Innovation Index rank: 15
Invention Index rank: 5

Number of employees: 11,800
2019 revenue: $22.449 billion
Headquarters: Foster City, Calif., U.S.


Innovation Index rank: 12
Invention Index rank: 12

Number of employees: 99,437
2019 revenue: $43.1 billion
Headquarters: Brentford, London, U.K.


Innovation Index rank: 15
Invention Index rank: 11

Number of employees: 88,300
2019 revenue: $51.75 billion
Headquarters: New York, N.Y., U.S.

Jiangsu Hengrui Medicine

Innovation Index rank: 13
Invention Index rank: 15

Number of employees: 21,016
2019 revenue: $2.7 billion
Headquarters: Jiangsu Province, China

Novo Nordisk

Innovation Index rank: 13
Invention Index rank: 29

Number of employees: 43,258
2019 revenue: $18.291 billion
Headquarters: Bagsværd, Denmark


Innovation Index rank: 24
Invention Index rank: 14

Number of employees: 49,578
2019 revenue: $18.875 billion
Headquarters: Tokyo, Japan

Daiichi Sankyo

Innovation Index rank: 19
Invention Index rank: 15

Number of employees: 14,887
2019 revenue: $8.4 billion
Headquarters: Chuo-ku, Tōkyō Prefecture, Japan


Innovation Index rank: 19
Invention Index rank: 17

Number of employees: 23,400
2019 revenue: $23.362 billion
Headquarters: Thousand Oaks, Calif., U.S.


Innovation Index rank: 17
Invention Index rank: 22

Number of employees: 100,409
2019 revenue: $42.147 billion
Headquarters: Paris, France


Innovation Index rank: 18
Invention Index rank: 17

Number of employees: 16,240
2019 revenue: $12.2 billion
Headquarters: Tokyo, Japan

Boehringer Ingelheim

Innovation Index rank: 25
Invention Index rank: 20

Number of employees: 52,500
2019 revenue: $20 billion
Headquarters: Ingelheim, Germany


Innovation Index rank: 21
Invention Index rank: 25

Number of employees: 7,400
2019 revenue: $14.378 billion
Headquarters: Cambridge, Mass., U.S.

Merck KGaA

Innovation Index rank: 28
Invention Index rank: 21

Number of employees: 56,000
2019 revenue: $18.1 billion
Headquarters: Darmstadt, Germany


Innovation Index rank: 22
Invention Index rank: 23

Number of employees: 10,452
2019 revenue: $6.7 billion
Headquarters: Bunkyo City, Tokyo, Japan


Innovation Index rank: 30
Invention Index rank: 26

Number of employees: 17,400
2019 revenue: $16.089 billion
Headquarters: Dublin, Ireland

H. Lundbeck

Innovation Index rank: 26
Invention Index rank: 30

Number of employees: 5,143
2019 revenue: $2.537 billion
Headquarters: Copenhagen, Denmark

Bayer AG

Innovation Index rank: 27
Invention Index rank: 26

Number of employees: 110,838
2019 revenue: $51.318 billion
Headquarters: Leverkusen, Germany


Innovation Index rank: 29
Invention Index rank: 28

Number of employees: 31,787
2019 revenue: $11 billion
Headquarters: Chiyoda City, Tokyo, Japan

Teva Pharmaceuticals

Innovation Index rank: 31
Invention Index rank: 31

Number of employees: 40,039
2019 revenue: $16.9 billion
Headquarters: Petah Tikva, Israel

IDEA Pharma is a leading pharmaceutical innovation consultancy group that has developed strategy for eight of the 15 biggest launches in the past five years.