Thursday, October 11, 2007

For IPO and M&A Exits, One Hand Washes the Other

At VC meetings like Atlas’s St. Tropez shindig (about which you can read more here and here), the heroes are the guys who have most recently sold their companies for big bucks. In St. Tropez, that guy was John Mendlein, of Adnexus.

Scientist/Lawyer Mendlein had followed the now well-worn path of filing for an IPO while simultaneously pursuing the opportunity that ultimately led him to embrace Bristol-Myers Squibb’s $415 million-plus marriage proposal.

No real difficulty to that decision—an IPO at maybe $200-250 million pre-money; an acquisition for twice that amount.

We’re told there was plenty of appetite for the IPO—Mendlein had done what every biotech CEO should do, but doesn’t, in spending plenty of time telling the Adnexus story to the usual crew of IPO buyers (for more, see here and, more in-depthly, here), giving them the reverse valuation argument they like (here’s terminal value X and why you, Mr. Investor, should be willing to pay NPV value of Y at our IPO).

But since there was such interest in the IPO, shouldn’t Mendlein’s choice between going public and selling out have been a little bit more difficult: given the possibility of that kind of purchase price, shouldn’t investors competing for those shares – not just with each other, but with Pharma -- have been willing to pay a higher price at the IPO?

At the Atlas meeting, your blogger showed a slide (available in this presentation) indicating the gap between how IPO buyers value private companies and how Big Pharma does, thus defining the arbitrage opportunity for investors. But according to an investor panel at the meeting, there is a fundamental-as-gravity law that dictates the minimum size of that gap, underpinned by at least four basic facts.

First, Big Pharma has a much lower cost of capital than any investment fund—practically a zero cost of capital given their cash flow and virtually unleveraged balance sheet, noted one investor. Second, any biotech will need its investors to pony up additional cash to get the job done—which means, uggh, dilution. Third, drug companies can recoup cost synergies because they can fire redundant workers; investors can’t because, theoretically, the only workers in the company are those necessary to get the job done. And finally, drug companies can sign CDAs with biotechs they’re interested in acquiring, collecting a ton of crucial investment information unavailable to fund managers.

We can’t find much wrong with the first three reasons, though we’d contend that pharma’s cost of capital is rising as it sends more of its cash back to investors in the form of share repurchases and dividends. But yes, it’s still lots lower.

But the biggest issue is the information asymmetry between a strategic buyer and a financial one. And that, we’d contend, is often less significant than it appears. Certain acquisitions are simply predictable—like Adnexus’s--based on the obvious needs of the buyers (very little large-molecule discovery) and the advantages of the seller (large-molecule discovery; the ability to move into desirable IP space with improved fast-follower products).

We won’t speculate here on who we think might be equally likely purchases…

…OK, yes we will. Maybe Ablynx, which just filed for an IPO on Eurolist—one of the usual messages signaling a for-sale sign. And its deal with Boehringer Ingelheim, which has plenty of bioprocessing but precious little discovery certainly offers an idea of who might be in on the auction (GlaxoSmithKline also has a stake in the company, via its VC arm SR One, and might want to pin its biologics hopes on more than simply the Domantis platform). And then on the public side, ImClone, which has a couple of underutilized manufacturing plants, a pipeline beyond Erbitux, for which natural acquirer Bristol is paying 39% royalties. The fact that Jeremy Levin just jumped from his senior biz dev job at Novartis to an even more senior and more-than-biz-dev job at Bristol indicates at least to us that Bristol, already one of the more innovative strategic thinkers in the industry, might be thinking more aggressively about its large-molecule options.

Granted we could easily be wrong on both of these – but the logic is reasonable and more importantly based on completely public information.

And similarly we’re willing to stand out on a limb and say what we think won’t happen – again based on public info. We stand in as much awe of Carl Icahn’s money-making ability as anyone, but we just don’t see how Biogen Idec—in which he took a stake earlier this year, sending the stock price spiraling upwards—can be affordably acquired at anything like the price it’s trading at. We’ve heard the rumor that it’s engaged Goldman Sachs to investigate “strategic alternatives,” but since any acquirer would have to share Rituxan with Genentech and since Elan has a change-in-control right to buy Tysabri, it’s not likely a drug company looking for biologics would long consider Biogen, particularly at a likely takeover price of $30 billion.

So…yes, there should be a difference between IPO valuations and average acquisition prices of private biotechs (or more generally, between what investors might see as the intrinsic value of biotech shares and their strategic value to buyers). But the difference has been shrinking: IPO pre-money market caps are up this year because investors are finally understanding the arbitrage opportunity. That’s good news for biotechs—because as IPO valuations increase, M&A prices – the competition for IPOs – creep up, too, giving more headroom for IPO prices, which pushes up M&A prices….

Vive la difference!

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