ICON biotech sector survey: Insights and projections shaping the Industry

The landscape of the biotech industry is a dynamic canvas, shaped by innovation, funding, and the pursuit of ground-breaking solutions. The ICON Biotech 2023 sector survey shares insights from 133 biotech decision-makers based in North America, Europe, and Asia Pacific. The findings offer a comprehensive glimpse into the strategies, hurdles, and outlook embraced by industry players. As we step into 2024, these insights pave the way for understanding the industry’s trajectory in the near future.

The Strategic Focus on R&D Amplification

A key finding from the survey underscores the pivotal role of increased research and development (R&D) efforts in steering the biotech sector through a complex landscape. The results of the survey showed that 60% of respondents expect their R&D spending to increase in the next one to two years.

One of the fundamental R&D challenges faced by biotechs revolves around the critical need to strike a balance between efficient resource allocation and the intricacies of drug development. Optimised trial designs offer an array of benefits ranging from informed decision-making to increased efficiency and bolstered confidence in the success of the molecules under development.

Strategic early development strategies, such as adaptive or model-based trial designs, emerge as viable solutions. These approaches allow for adjustments based on interim data, incorporating changes in biomarkers that serve as surrogates for efficacy. Though not universally applicable, when thoughtfully executed, adaptive and model-based trials serve to mitigate risks, despite their potential complexity and higher associated costs.

The R&D challenges faced by biotechs demand a balancing act between scientific ambition and fiscal pragmatism. Optimised trial designs and strategic early development strategies offer pathways to navigate funding constraints while driving efficient and successful drug development.

Confidence Amidst Funding Challenges

The resilience and confidence observed amidst funding challenges within the biotech sector represent a testament to the industry’s steadfast commitment to innovation and transformative advancements in healthcare.

Despite grappling with financial constraints and limited access to capital, 87% of respondents in the survey express a profound level of confidence in the success of their drug development programs. This steadfast belief in the potential of their endeavours underscores the dedication and conviction prevalent among biotech professionals. It signifies a deeply rooted understanding of the value their research and development efforts hold, both in terms of addressing critical medical needs and potentially reshaping therapeutic landscapes. This confidence, coupled with strategic planning and collaborative efforts, stands poised to drive the biotech sector towards ground breaking innovations that could redefine the future of healthcare.

Avoiding Clinical Trial Roadblocks

Running clinical trials, notably phase three trials, remains a formidable challenge. 32% of respondents cited clinical trials as the single greatest challenge for their organisation, with 51% identifying phase three as the most challenging period. Clinical trial challenges beat securing funding, which was cited as the top challenge by just 14% of respondents, despite the current financing situation. When asked about the clinical trial challenges they face, respondents said clinical trials are extremely costly, require significant expertise and coordination, are the most time-consuming element, patient recruitment, and it is difficult because of the law in different countries.

Addressing these challenges necessitates a multifaceted approach. Strategic partnerships with large pharmaceutical firms and CROs, can provide biotech companies access to specialised expertise and resources, alleviating the burden of conducting trials independently. Innovative trial methodologies, such as decentralised trials, have emerged as potential solutions to enhance patient recruitment and retention. These approaches leverage digital technologies and remote monitoring, potentially widening the participant pool and mitigating logistical challenges.

Rather than working with smaller or regional service providers, drug developers are increasingly recognising that the breadth of expertise offered by global CROs and the power of working with full-service partners to optimise programs, are critical to maximising the chances of success. When sourcing new partnerships, 41% of respondents indicated that medium or large sized CROs are preferred when it comes to clinical development, as they have a global presence and a wide service offering.

Implications for Biotech in 2024 and Beyond

The survey findings serve as a compass, guiding the biotech sector towards a future entrenched in collaboration, strategic funding, and innovation. As 2024 unfolds, several key implications surface:

Strategic Collaboration

The trend of partnerships between smaller biotechs and larger pharmaceutical entities is poised to intensify. This alliance not only provides vital funding streams for innovation but also fosters an ecosystem of shared expertise, amplifying the potential for ground-breaking discoveries. Biotech’s lean and agile model means they must outsource a larger percentage of their services than mid-size or large pharma that have more in-house resources. According to recent ISR reports on phase 1 trials, small sponsors with <$100m annual R&D budget outsourced a total of 81% of their total phase one study spend, with a similar percentage for phases two to three. Those numbers are predicted to increase to 84% and 93%, respectively, by 2026 while the total annual spend for these trials across all phases is expected to increase significantly in the next few years.

Innovation amidst constraints

The industry’s resilience shines through as R&D spending is anticipated to continue to grow despite funding challenges. However, addressing the impediments in clinical trial execution and navigating rising capital costs will demand innovative solutions and collaborative efforts between stakeholders.

Given funding challenges, trial strategies should include strategic checkpoints to prevent unnecessary spending. Companies can achieve this by using interim analyses and rigorous strategies to determine success or failure earlier in the process, avoiding wasteful investment in unattainable long-term goals. Moreover, early development strategies like adaptive or model-based designs can be advantageous when implemented effectively. These approaches allow adjustments based on interim data, including changes in biomarkers, which can serve as surrogates for efficacy. While not a one-size-fits-all solution, adaptive and model- based trials can mitigate risks when carefully planned, despite their potential complexity and higher costs.

Focus on Cost Optimisation

Striking a delicate balance between innovation and cost management will be pivotal. Biotech companies must prioritise operational efficiency and explore avenues for optimised resource utilisation without compromising on the quality and pace of innovation. The increase in spend is correlated to the rising complexity and increased size of studies, and the biggest anticipated jump in spending across all sponsor organisations is attributed to small sponsors in phases two to three. As such, biotech companies have an opportunity to seize a competitive advantage and optimise their outsourcing approaches by leveraging the updated partnership models being developed across the industry.


The industry’s resilience, commitment to R&D amplification, and recognition of collaborative avenues underscore a promising trajectory for 2024. However, navigating the hurdles posed by clinical trials, rising capital costs, and the imperative of effective cost management will demand concerted efforts and innovative strategies. As the industry marches forward, these insights serve as signposts, steering biotech companies toward transformative advancements that hold the promise of reshaping healthcare and human well-being in the near future.

  • Chris Smyth
    Chris Smyth

    President of ICON Biotech

    Dr. Smyth has 30 years' operational and therapeutic experience, most notably in biotech, MedTech and oncology. Prior to ICON, Dr. Smyth spent 10 years in IQVIA Biotech, where he held EVP Oncology and Chief Operating Officer roles before assuming global leadership as President of the division.