Which are pharma's top 4 innovators? Hint: It's not the big guys

There's been a lot of talk about a dearth of innovation in the pharma business. But some drugmakers don't lack creativity. In fact, a few of them actually made Forbes' latest list of 100 most innovative companies on the globe.

Two biotechs made the list--Regeneron Pharmaceuticals ($REGN) and Alexion Pharmaceuticals ($ALXN)--but we'll let FierceBiotech explain that. Our concerns are the four pharma companies: Perrigo ($PRGO), Valeant Pharmaceuticals ($VRX), Novo Nordisk ($NVO) and Mylan ($MYL). They're ranked 22nd, 62nd, 70th and 90th, respectively, based on an "Innovation Premium" that measures stock gains based on expectations of new products, services and markets.

Forbes doesn't go into detail about the basis for those expectations. So we'll give it a shot ourselves.

Perrigo specializes in store-brand over-the-counter drugs, and it's one of the world's fastest-growing generics makers, at No. 2 on FiercePharma's list. It got a boost from the manufacturing problems at McNeil, the Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) OTC unit that still hasn't returned all its products to store shelves after a series of big recalls in 2010. Novartis' ($NVS) consumer-drug recall didn't hurt, either. While other drugs were absent, Perrigo gained market share.

It has racked up some acquisitions in recent years, including a $540 million buyout of Paddock Labs. But its biggest single move came in July of this year, with its $8.6 billion takeover bid for Elan, the Irish drugmaker with a big royalty stream on Tysabri. Elan's ($ELN) Irish domicile could significantly lower Perrigo's tax rate, with a quick effect on earnings.

Valeant has grown by leaps and bounds since it was formed out of a merger with Biovail in 2010. The Canadian drugmaker isn't about developing the next big drug, but scoring the next good deal. CEO J. Michael Pearson has engineered a series of acquisitions, building up Biovail's business in dermatology and eye care, and expanding into new markets. His modus operandi: buy a company--preferably at a bargain--fold it in, cut jobs and costs.

To wit, Valeant's latest buy, the $8.7 billion Bausch + Lomb, officially joined the company late last month, and employees were quickly notified about job cuts of 10% to 15%. Besides cost cuts, Pearson has his eye on $20 billion in sales; before the B+L deal, its 2013 revenue was forecast at $4.8 billion.

Novo Nordisk, the Danish drugmaker best known for its diabetes treatments, is the world's biggest seller of insulin, from old-style versions to modern insulins such as Levemir and NovoRapid. It also has a hot-selling newer drug, Victoza, which takes a big jump every quarter. Altogether, the company accounted for 6 entries in our ranking of the 10 best-selling diabetes drugs. But late last year, the FDA asked for more data on a new drug it was counting on for its next leap forward, Tresiba.

Now, the company has worked out a Tresiba plan with the FDA, and it's rolling out the drug in Europe and Japan. But CEO Lars Rebien Sørensen expects no major boost from Tresiba until it launches in the U.S. That could happen in 2015. In the meantime, with diabetes a growing scourge around the world, and Novo's strong presence in China and other emerging markets to capitalize on that, the company has some other growth prospects. If it can continue to pump up sales of Victoza--perhaps with the help of a new weight-loss indication--and grow its modern insulins, the innovation police may remain satisfied. 

Generics maker Mylan has been riding Big Pharma's wave of patent expirations--and by launching its own versions, growing accordingly. Last year it hit $6.8 billion in sales. Lately, the company has been active on the M&A side and set up some new partnerships with branded drugmakers.

But its biggest moves have been in India, where Mylan rolled out a portfolio of HIV drugs and set up a new oncology plant--and is now aiming to wrap up its acquisition of local drugmaker Strides Arcolab's injectables unit, Agila Specialties. The company says it's planning even more growth for the country, in hopes of persuading competition officials that its Agila buyout is a good deal for India.

- see the Forbes report

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