If you just read the headlines, you'd think big biotechs were handing out cash like candy on Halloween. Three billion here, two billion there -- cute costume, grab a handful:

"Sangamo in $3 billion gene-editing deal with Gilead" --Reuters

"Can Bristol-Myers Squibb Squeeze $3.6 Billion From Its Nektar Therapeutics Deal?" --The Motley Fool

"Takeda surfs a potential $2B Wave of acquisitions" --BioPharma Dive

Two men shaking hands in a conference room

Image source: Getty Images.

In reality, the deals are more complex than the total values of the deals in the headlines suggest:




Up-Front Payments

The Rest

Sangamo Therapeutics (NASDAQ:SGMO)

Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ:GILD)

10 or more next-generation ex vivo cell therapies in oncology

$150 million

$3.01 billion in milestones across 10 or more products

Nektar Therapeutics (NASDAQ:NKTR)

Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE:BMY)


$1 billion

$850 million equity investment, and $1.78 billion in milestones

Wave Life Sciences (NASDAQ:WVE)

Takeda Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQOTH: TKPYY)

WVE-120101, WVE-120102, WVE-3972-01, an unnamed drug, up to six preclinical programs

$110 million

$60 million equity investment, $60 million in research support, more than $2 billion in milestones

Data source: Company press releases.

The breakdown of the up-front payments makes it clear that Nektar has the best deal of the three. Clearly Bristol-Myers Squibb is risking the most with the $1 billion up-front payment; even the $850 million equity investment won't be worth as much if NKTR-214 is a bust.

The unknowns

For payments beyond the up-front payments, we'd ideally like to value them based on the risk-adjusted net present value of the other payments.

For instance, if there's a $100 million payment for an approval by the Food and Drug Administration that we think has a 30% chance of occurring, the risk-adjusted value is $30 million. Then, if approval is three years away and we'd like a 10% return, the net present value of the $30 million would be about $22.5 million.

Unfortunately, most drugmakers don't list what the milestones are, and what they'll get for achieving each milestone. Clearly a milestone for advancing into phase 2 is easier to accomplish than getting an FDA approval, which, in turn, is easier than achieving $1 billion in sales.

For some deals, the companies are nice enough to give some context. Wave Life Sciences, for instance, notes that more than $1 billion of its $2 billion in milestones is for precommercial achievements, but even that's vague. This is especially true for unnamed preclinical programs where the milestones could be anything from designating a drug as one of six compounds (which could happen pretty soon) to an FDA approval (which might come many years later).

A case study

Let's look at the value of theoretical milestones and how they relate to the value of an underlying company. Astellas Pharma (OTC:ALPMY) gave us an interesting example recently, in a deal with privately held Universal Cells.

In October, the two announced a deal giving Astellas rights to Universal Cells' Universal Donor Cell technology. Between an up-front payment and research milestones, Universal Cells will be eligible for up to $9 million; for research funding and clinical and regulatory milestone payments, it can get up to $115 million. Universal Cells was also eligible for undisclosed royalties on Astellas products using Universal Cells technology.

How much should that potential $124 million add to the value of Universal Cells? Last month, four months after the initial deal, Astellas announced that it was buying the entire company for $102.5 million. For $102.5 million up front, Astellas can now use the technology on as many products it wants. It also picks up potential payments from other licensing deals that Universal Cells had previously set up, and could theoretically do additional licensing deals for the technology if Astellas doesn't want to just keep it in-house.

An endorsement

While it's hard to determine exactly how much future milestone payments should increase the value of the underlying company, a deal with a large biotech says a lot about the assets being licensed. Potential partners usually get more access to underlying data than what's available to investors, so a company's willingness to sign on the dotted line should be seen as an endorsement in the totality of the data generated so far.

Ultimately investors should focus on the up-front payment; it's the only concrete number to go on. A larger up-front payment is also indicative of a larger endorsement, because up-front payments are money the company won't get back if the drug fails along the way.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.