Meet the most innovative and inventive pharmaceutical companies of 2021

April 16, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC
Eli Lilly has claimed the top spot on the IDEA Pharma Innovation Index for 2021. Its four-spot rise is due mainly to a plethora of positive clinical results and notable regulatory wins, accompanied by a solid financial performance.
Cristina Arias—Cover/Getty Images

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If you want to understand the state of pharmaceutical industry innovation, the relationship between Pixar and Disney is a good reference point. That’s one analogy Mike Rea, CEO of IDEA Pharma, which advises pharmaceutical companies on their innovation process and approaches to drug development, applies to the dynamic.

“The thing most people don’t realize about our industry is how little happens, you know, in terms of launching drugs,” Rea tells Fortune. “So great companies launch one drug a year. If you think about Hollywood, or Pixar, launching one movie per year is regarded as great.” Those kinds of game-changing launches may not be coming, at least not as much, from the pharma sector’s household names anymore.

IDEA Pharma’s 10th annual Pharmaceutical Innovation Index, published by Fortune, focuses not so much on the ability of companies to rake in cash—drug industry titans such as AbbVie and others will still make billions of dollars from decades-old products—but the ability to create something innovative that lays the groundwork for the future. And there’s a long-brewing trend coming into focus: The big players are losing ground to the smaller biopharma companies creating groundbreaking drugs.


Approximate number of drugs currently in development by the top 30 IDEA Pharma companies—OVER 2,200 CLINICAL STUDIEs

“I wonder whether that’s a big shift in our industry,” Rea says. “Which is that you don’t need the guys with the bank accounts anymore. Because you can launch rare disease drugs, you can launch oncology drugs, without needing a large pharma player.”

This is the crux of the relationship between smaller, more nimble players in the drug development space that can pump out innovative products versus the titans which may be dragged down by institutional weight and scale. There are caveats, however. For instance, Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly, which may have been more subdued among the bigger players in recent years, took the No. 1 spot on this year’s Innovation Index for the first time.

But upstart biotechs in China, or lesser-known firms in Europe such as BioNTech (the company which partnered with Pfizer and China’s Fosun Pharma to produce a COVID vaccine), have beat mainstay players such as GlaxoSmithKline or Sanofi at their own infectious disease specialties during a pandemic. That has a lot to do with institutional structures. Big pharmaceutical companies have more of a need to “feed the beast,” as Rea puts it. That is: A larger company may have more capacity and better infrastructure, but it might not be sowing the seeds of future growth. Or at least not as much as they used to.

It comes back to the Disney and Pixar analogy.

“Disney, they had like 5,000 illustrators who needed work to do. And they had distributors and marketers and divisions, and all these people wanted to be fed,” he says. “And it didn’t matter if it was good work or bad work, but it was work, right? And I think pharma is in that mode of feeding the beast.”

See which companies made this year’s IDEA Pharma twin indexes—the Innovation Index and the Invention Index—below. Find last year’s here.


Innovation vs. Invention

as defined by IDEA Pharma:

Invention: Bringing ideas or technologies together in a novel way to create something that did not exist before.

Innovation: Return on invention; creation of meaningful value from invention.


Highlighted companies

*Figures are for latest fiscal year-end. In U.S. dollars.

Eli Lilly

Innovation ranking: 1
Invention ranking: 4

Number of employees: 35,000
2020 revenue: $24.5 billion
Headquarters: Indianapolis

One year after regressing to fifth place on the innovation scale, Eli Lilly has claimed the top spot for 2021. The four-spot rise is due mainly to a plethora of positive clinical results and notable regulatory wins, accompanied by a solid financial performance.


Innovation ranking: 2
Invention ranking: 13

Number of employees: 101,465
2020 revenue:  $62.2 billion
Headquarters: Basel, Switzerland

Roche falls below the top 10 on the invention scale, but the company ranks No. 2 on the Innovation ranking, driven largely by having the highest number of novel FDA drug approvals in 2020.

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals

Innovation ranking: 3
Invention ranking: 6

Number of employees: 9,123
2020 revenue:  $8.5 billion
Headquarters: Tarrytown, N.Y.

Regeneron has climbed seven positions, from No. 10 on last year’s index to third this year. The climb represents the company’s strong commitment to growing Dupixent across indications, a myriad of positive clinical data readouts, multiple regulatory approvals, and a strong financial performance in 2020.


Innovation ranking:
Invention ranking: 22

Number of employees: 2,092
2020 revenue:  $2.2 billion
Headquarters:  Bothell, Wash.

Seagen—formerly Seattle Genetics—has not only appeared for the first time on the Pharmaceutical Innovation and Invention Index, it has also captured the fourth position on the innovation scale. Despite its size, Seagen’s innovative approach to oncology drug development—leveraging its capabilities while maximizing value through partnerships—drove its success on the innovation scale this year.


Innovation ranking: 5
Invention ranking: 2

Number of employees: 1,773
2020 revenue:  $2.7 billion
Headquarters: Wilmington, Del.

Appearing for the first time on the Pharmaceutical Innovation and Invention Index, Incyte ranks among the top five companies for 2021. Incyte’s promising pipeline, strong financial performance, and two novel drug approvals in 2020 have contributed to its top-five position in both rankings.


Innovation ranking: 6
Invention ranking: 16

Number of employees: 94,066
2020 revenue: $43.8 billion
Headquarters: Brentford, London, U.K.


Innovation ranking: 7
Invention ranking: 24

Number of employees: 99,412
Revenue: $42.7 billion
Headquarters: Paris


Innovation ranking: 8
Invention ranking: 6

Number of employees: 76,100
2020 revenue: $26.6 billion
Headquarters: Cambridge, U.K.

AstraZeneca dropped only two spots, coming in at No. 8 on the 2021 innovation scale, and a drop to No. 6 on the 2021 invention scale after holding first place on last year’s Invention Index. The forces driving AstraZeneca’s innovation ranking this year are its label expansions of numerous marketed products, as well as the development and launch of its lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine.


Innovation ranking: 8
Invention ranking: 3

Number of employees: 78,500
2020 revenue:  $41.9 billion
Headquarters: New York, N.Y.

Pfizer jumped up significantly on both the invention and innovation scales this year, landing at No. 8 for innovation and No. 3 for invention. One of Pfizer’s biggest achievements in 2020 was the development of its groundbreaking mRNA COVID-19 vaccine in less than eight months, making history as the first COVID-19 vaccine authorized for use in the United States.


Innovation ranking: 10
Invention ranking: 11

Number of employees: 13,600
2020 revenue: $24.7 billion
Headquarters: Foster City, Calif.

This year, Gilead landed at No. 10 on the innovation ranking and No. 11 on the invention ranking. Gilead’s impressive financial performance with year-end revenues up 10% in 2020, its encouraging pipeline with promising HIV assets, and its commitment to growing its cell therapy portfolio despite the disappointingly slow growth of Yescarta have contributed to its rankings this year.


Innovation ranking: 10
Invention ranking: 9

Number of employees: 105,794
2020 revenue: $49.9 billion
Headquarters: Basel, Switzerland

Retaining its place among the top 10 yet dropping several spots on the Pharmaceutical Innovation and Invention Index, Novartis settles into the 10th and 9th positions on the innovation and invention rankings, respectively, for 2021. Despite the challenges of the global pandemic, Novartis delivered on its commitment to patients by successfully having two novel treatments approved in 2020.

Bristol Myers Squibb

Innovation ranking: 17
Invention ranking: 1

Number of employees: 30,250
2020 revenue: $42.5 billion
Headquarters: New York, N.Y.

This year Bristol Meyers Squibb has claimed the top spot in our Invention ranking. This is largely attributed to its having substantially expanded its pipeline through the acquisition of Celgene. Through that acquisition, BMS inherited a new blockbuster hopeful, the MS drug ozanimod, for which it received FDA approval last year.


Innovation ranking: 12
Invention ranking: 21

Number of employees: 3,400
2020 revenue: $6.2 billion
Headquarters: Boston

Merck & Co.

Innovation ranking: 13
Invention ranking: 10

Number of employees: 73,500
2020 revenue: $48.0 billion
Headquarters: Kenilworth, N.J.

Novo Nordisk

Innovation ranking: 13
Invention ranking: 31

Number of employees: 45,323
2020 revenue: $19.4 billion
Headquarters: Bagsvaerd, Denmark


Innovation ranking: 15
Invention ranking: 15

Number of employees: 47,000
2020 revenue: $45.8 billion
Headquarters: North Chicago, Ill.

Johnson & Johnson

Innovation ranking: 15 
Invention ranking: 8

Number of employees: 134,500
2020 revenue: $82.6 billion
Headquarters: New Brunswick, N.J.


Innovation ranking: 18
Invention ranking: 17

Number of employees: 24,300
2020 revenue: $25.4 billion
Headquarters: Thousand Oaks, Calif.


Innovation ranking: 19 
Invention ranking: 26

Number of employees: 10,998
2019 revenue: $6.4 billion
Headquarters: Tokyo


Innovation ranking: 20
Invention ranking: 28

Number of employees: 15,883
2019 revenue: $12.0 billion
Headquarters: Tokyo


Innovation ranking: 20
Invention ranking: 18

Number of employees: 9,100
2020 revenue: $13.4 billion
Headquarters: Cambridge, Mass.


Innovation ranking: 20
Invention ranking: 13

Number of employees: 1,300
2020 revenue: $ 803.4 million
Headquarters: Cambridge, Mass.


Innovation ranking: 23 
Invention ranking: 27

Number of employees: 3,837
2020 revenue: $6.1 billion
Headquarters: Boston

Daiichi Sankyo

Innovation ranking: 24 
Invention ranking: 22

Number of employees: 15,348
2019 revenue: $9.0 billion
Headquarters: Tokyo

H. Lundbeck

Innovation ranking: 25 
Invention ranking: 30

Number of employees: 5,628
2020 revenue: $2.7 billion
Headquarters: Valby, Denmark

Merck KGaA

Innovation ranking: 26 
Invention ranking: 25

Number of employees: 58,096
2020 revenue: $20.0 billion
Headquarters: Darmstadt, Germany


Innovation ranking: 27 
Invention ranking: 5

Number of employees: 5,300
2020 revenue: $309 million
Headquarters: Beijing, China and Cambridge, Mass.


Innovation ranking: 28 
Invention ranking: 12

Number of employees: 47,495
2019 revenue: $30.3 billion
Headquarters: Tokyo

Boehringer Ingelheim

Innovation ranking: 29 
Invention ranking: 19

Number of employees: 51,944
2020 Revenue: $26.5 billion
Headquarters: Ingelheim, Germany

Bayer AG

Innovation ranking: 30 
Invention ranking: 20

Number of employees: 99,538
2020 revenue: $47.3 billion
Headquarters: Leverkusen, Germany

Otsuka Holdings

Innovation ranking: 31 
Invention ranking: 29

Number of employees: 33,151
2020 revenue: $13.3 billion
Headquarters: Tokyo

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. The complete Pharmaceutical Invention and Innovation Index 2021 will be published on April 21, 2021, by IDEA Pharma.

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