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Icon boosts its presence in Asia with acquisition of Chinese CRO BeijingWits Medical Consulting

Monday, December 19, 2011

Now that many mid-tier CROs have been acquired by either equity investment firms or other CROs and the trend has slowed, a new form of consolidation is emerging. Robust CROs are rounding out their offerings with small but strategic acquisitions to make them bigger, stronger and more complete. The ultimate goal: to continue winning lucrative strategic outsourcing agreements from sponsors.  

To that end, last week Icon announced it would buy Chinese CRO BeijingWits Medical Consulting. The terms of the deal were not made public. Investment firm William Blair estimated in its report on the planned acquisition that BeijingWits’ revenue base is small—about $4 million—with margins likely below Icon’s corporate average, but that it seems like a smart buy.  

“We believe the acquired company should be able to grow in the 15% to 20% range longer term, considering the growth potential of the Chinese CRO market,” the firm said in its report. 

“I think it is a logical continuation of Icon’s strategy to expand in key markets,” said Neal McCarthy, managing director of investment banking firm Fairmount Partners, pointing to the strategic alliance Icon inked with Shanghai-based CRO Tigermed Consulting in April 2010.  

But the time had come to take things further than strategic partnerships, said Simon Holmes, Icon’s vice president of group marketing and market development. “We’re trying to leverage the experience we’ve already built up in the region with strong local experience so we can accelerate growth there,” he said. 

Holmes said Icon had about 50 employees in China prior to the deal and, if it goes through, the acquisition of 14-year-old BeijingWits will bring Icon’s workforce to 150 in China. That market is key, he said.  

“Most people agree that the Asia Pac is a growing market for clinical research,” he said. “It’s been part of our strategy for a while now to solidify our position there.”  

Are more acquisitions expected? “Icon manages its growth predominantly organically, but makes strategic acquisitions where it makes sense,” said Holmes. “I think that will continue.”  

Icon’s intended acquisition of BeijingWits may also signal a growing comfort with  investing in infrastructure in China. Peter DiBiaso, senior director of clinical planning and performance at Vertex Pharmaceuticals and former director of global clinical trial recruitment services for Pfizer, said last spring that CROs and sponsors were not rushing into China as expected. Most were gingerly entering the market via joint ventures and partnerships rather than opening offices, he said at the time.  

“I think people are taking a wait-and-see approach to China,” DiBiaso said. “There’s a fear of getting it wrong. People are instead working to try and understand the marketplace, the legal infrastructure, the IP rights.” 

Icon’s intended purchase could be signaling a change since April, to a readiness among CROs. 

BeijingWits Medical Consulting was founded in 1997. The company provides services to global and local pharmaceutical, medical device and biotechnology companies focusing on phase I-IV clinical studies. BeijingWits operates from six offices in China. The acquisition is expected to close in the first quarter of 2012. 

Icon’s most recent acquisition was Firecrest Clinical, a 10-year-old Limerick, Ireland-based e-clinical technology solutions company with about 60 employees. 

Another recent example of a CRO making small but strategic acquisitions to fill voids in its offerings is Quintiles. The large CRO in October acquired observational research services company Outcome Sciences, sales and commercial services firms VCG & Associates and VCG Bio and large bioanalytical lab Advion. Prior to these three, the CRO had made only one other acquisition this year, Italian regulatory and market services company Temas in March. 

And just last week, Quintiles launched Kun Tuo, a local CRO to serve the Chinese biopharmaceutical industry and multinational biopharma operating in China. 

Suz Redfearn

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