Searching for a follow-up act, Samsung turns to drugs
Following a decade of Apple ruling the tech world, Samsung Electronics emerged as its biggest rival in the smartphone market that is still at the heart of Apple's business. More than a rival, Samsung has been a constant thorn in Apple's side in everything from a high-profile patent battle to its status as a supplier and competitor.
A week ago, reports emerged that Apple was in talks to buy Beats Electronics for $3.2 billion, a move that was seen as a potential shift from Apple the company that had home-brewed its biggest innovations to Apple being just another big tech company that spends ten- or eleven digit sums to keep their creative edge.
It's the inevitable fallout from the kind of massive success that Apple has seen in smartphones and tablets: Everyone expects an equally magnificent follow-up act.
Samsung Electronics is also due for a follow-up act. After rising 234 percent between early 2009 and early 2013, Samsung's shares have flatlined. Samsung, of course, is well diversified beyond the mobile products that have been driving its growth. For years, Samsung has been a major supplier of chips, displays and consumer electronics like TVs. Last year, however, mobile revenue grew 32 percent, more than double the company's overall rate.
Like Apple, though, Samsung will need a strong follow-up act as the market for smartphones grows saturated. And here is where the company is in some ways showing an ability to leapfrog past Apple: Samsung Electronics has set up a biotech subsidiary that is starting to produce biosimilars, or follow-on versions of expensive biotech drugs that are facing expiring patents.
Follow-on drugs may seem like a pretty huge leap for a company that has made components and consumer gadgets. Such is the thinking of Samsung Electronics, the flagship business inside the Samsung Group conglomerate that has its fingers in everything from hotels to shipbuilding to life insurance.
Samsung's plans have been years in the making. In 2010, Samsung announced it would make biopharmaceuticals one of the new areas of focus that would drive its growth in the coming decade. Funded by an investment from Samsung Electronics and another Samsung unit, a joint venture was formed with Biogen Idec, a Massachusetts-based biotech company with $5 billion in annual revenue.
Samsung Biologics set up in 2011 to produce drugs from living cells and is now moving into the adjacent market of making copies of biologics that treat ailments like arthritis, leukemia, lymphoma, and autoimmune disorders. Starting next year, according to Bloomberg, the joint venture with Biogen Idec, called Samsung Bioepis and 85 percent owned by Samsung, will start selling biosimilars version of Amgen's Enbrel and Johnson & Johnson's Remicade.
The biotech industry has been enjoying something of a boom in the past several years, with changes in the FDA drug-approval process and advances in gene therapies ending a decade-long drought in biotech funding and a subsequent surge in biotech IPOs since 2012. But concerns are rising that the boom is in its final days with the Nasdaq Biotech Index down 16 percent in the past three months.
Still, there are reasons why Samsung's new push could pay off in the long run. While money to fund new biotech therapies could be drying up, the business for the follow-on market could continue to grow for years as more biotech patents expire. Analysts estimate the market for biosimilars will reach between $19 billion and $24 billion in annual sales by 2019 from a little more than $1 billion last year.
In the US, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act granted the FDA the ability to approve biosimilars. Approving biosimilars is more complex than traditional generic drugs because of the different cell lines that are often involved can keep drugs from being an exact copy. Such questions are causing the FDA to weigh biosimilar policy carefully, but the timeline may not delay the plans of Samsung or other companies.
So while Beats Electronics may give Apple the upgrade to iTunes it's badly needed for years, the move will be addressing the maturing market of digital music. Samsung's next act, meanwhile, will be in a nascent market that could grow quickly in a world where demand for effective but lower-cost drugs will remain high.
Not just Apple, but Google, Facebook and all the biggest players are looking for their next act. It may be that Samsung not only has the most daring idea, but the one that may provide the richest returns.