Cash-rich but growth-stymied Gilead promotes dealmaker Dickinson to top strategy post

After Gilead reported that its revenues plummeted 21% in the first quarter to $5.1 billion, its executives promised 2018 is merely a “trough year,” and that future growth would be driven by new potential blockbusters like CAR-T cancer treatment Yescarta and HIV drug Biktarvy.

But the company just made a personnel choice that strongly suggests it will look outside its own walls for growth opportunities, too—and then backed up that move with a fresh licensing deal.

Gilead announced Monday its corporate development chief, Andrew Dickinson, will step up to its senior leadership team and become EVP of corporate development and strategy. Dickinson, who joined Gilead in 2016, has spearheaded the company's biggest deals of late—its $11.9 billion acquisition of Yescarta inventor Kite Pharma and the $567 million purchase of Cell Design Labs.

The California company also said its current executive VP of strategy, Martin Silverstein, has resigned, citing a desire to return to the East Coast.

Then, Wednesday morning, Gilead said it struck a licensing deal with Austria-based Hookipa Biotech to jointly develop hepatitis B and HIV drugs. Gilead is paying just $10 million up front, but the total value of the alliance could reach $400 million, it said.

The company's newly promoted development chief “has brought to Gilead vision, creativity and leadership, fundamentally changing the way that we assess and execute acquisitions and partnerships as an organization,” said Gilead CEO John Milligan in a statement about Dickinson's promotion. “His deep understanding of the industry has helped guide Gilead’s strategy and will be critical to our future success.”

RELATED: With hepatitis C in freefall, Gilead's bottoming out. The good news? It's bottoming out

Indeed, Yescarta and Biktarvy may not be enough to pull Gilead out of that trough, created by the rapid drop in sales of the company’s hepatitis C drugs Sovaldi and Harvoni. The drugs once brought in $19 billion in sales, but they have been slammed by a combination of competition from AbbVie’s Mavyret and a market that’s shrinking as the new treatments cure the majority of patients. Gilead is expecting its hepatitis C revenues to drop from $9.1 billion to no more than $4 billion this year.

Dickinson’s multibillion-dollar bid for Kite reflected high hopes for Yescarta, but the personalized lymphoma treatment has a long way to go to hit blockbuster expectations. Yescarta brought in just $40 million in revenues in the first quarter, as insurers and hospitals have been slow to put payment systems in place for the therapy.

And now Gilead is facing a direct competitor: Novartis’s CAR-T treatment Kymriah, which got an additional nod from the FDA in May to treat lymphoma. When Kymriah was initially approved to treat leukemia, Novartis priced it at $475,000, but the list price in lymphoma is $373,000—equivalent to what Gilead is charging for Yescarta. That could set up a tough head-to-head battle in the emerging CAR-T market.

So does Gilead have the resources to boost its near-term pipeline with another big acquisition? Yes, said Leerink analyst Geoffrey Porges. He issued a report in late May naming the companies with the biggest financial “deal capacity,” or the ability to pay for acquisitions without taking on untoward debt. Gilead, he said, is among five companies with the most flexibility to make deals.

RELATED: Watch out, Gilead—Novartis got the FDA nod it needs to steal your CAR-T market

With $32.9 billion in cash on its balance sheet and $29 billion in debt, Gilead “could seriously contemplate transactions as large as” buying Biogen, Alexion Pharmaceuticals or Regeneron, Porges said in his note. Amgen is the only other big biotech with that kind of buying power, he added. And Gilead is in such a strong enough position it could issue more than $30 billion in additional debt to pull off a deal, he said in the report.

Gilead’s shareholders were putting significant M&A pressure on the company last year, but that was largely silenced by the Kite acquisition. With Dickinson in charge, however, the company’s deal hunting may kick back into high gear. Dickinson, a lawyer with an undergraduate degree in biology, once co-managed healthcare investment banking at Lazard, where he “advised on numerous, industry-defining merger and acquisition transactions,” Gilead said in its announcement.