A Strategic Approach to Pharma R&D Portfolio Planning

April 23, 2019

How drug developers can include strategy in R&D portfolio review to decide how to allocate resources across current and future projects.

Drug developers rely on regular cycles of R&D portfolio review to decide how to allocate resources across current and potential projects-but in most firms, it is qualitative, highly subjective, and focused on near-term budget constraints. This article describes a way to inject a dose of strategy into the process.

The problem: Today’s R&D portfolio planning activities are mainly budget allocation tools

Over several decades, many key principles of R&D portfolio planning have been codified by scholars in operations management and put into practice in pharma and other R&D-focused industries.1 Drug companies2,3 use these processes to “force rank” projects by various elements of cost, risk, and reward; allocate funds and personnel; and track resource utilization.

The problem is that most R&D portfolio planning approaches are primarily short-term budgeting tools, not strategic ones. Budgeting exercises are critical in pharma, but they do little to help companies objectively define their portfolio goals over broader time horizons and track performance against them. This lack of well-articulated, long-term aspirations supported by quantitative metrics creates challenges for executives who want to enact a long-term-focused R&D strategy and explain it to employees, investors, and journalists.4

The solution: A parallel process focused on strategic goals

One solution to this problem is to implement an independent but complementary strategic R&D portfolio review, which can run alongside current budgeting activities. Although the two processes share superficial similarities, the strategic review has three unique features:

  • It explicitly defines the weights of various metrics relative to one another and collapses them into reproducible, quantitative measures of value and feasibility. This provides a more nuanced view of the portfolio than a simple one-dimensional “rack and stack” approach, while also yielding intuitive outputs that can be communicated easily within and outside the company.

  • It defines minimal and target thresholds for each component, which are held constant from year to year and let executives and the public track the portfolio against fixed goals.

  • It utilizes external advisors as reviewers, much like an NIH grant review panel, which eliminates internal biases and also reduces the time required from internal staff.

Example of how this approach works in practice

An example of the analytic outputs of this sort of strategic review process is shown in Figure 1. This anonymized example is based on work with a not-for-profit organization that currently deploys over $100M of funding to diverse R&D activities across materials sciences, life sciences, and other areas-but it is easy to imagine a similar output from a pharma company working across multiple therapeutic areas. This particular organization convened an external advisory board to score each of its R&D programs on over a dozen distinct metrics, such as expected economic value, team capabilities, and existing scientific validation, according to specified criteria. These scores were then mathematically combined and aggregated for “value” and “feasibility,” based on differential weightings of the metrics according to the management team’s determination of their relative strategic significance. The organization’s executives also defined the minimal and “stretch” targets for each distinct metric, which led to placement of thresholds to determine which projects were within the expected performance and aspirational vision. The result was a familiar “2x2” matrix, easily interpreted within and outside the organization: the upper right quadrant represents high-value, high-feasibility projects, while the lower left quadrant contains underperforming projects. When the organization repeated the process in subsequent years and tracked the portfolio’s evolution over time, it examined more closely the projects in the less desirable quadrants and adjusted its project funding processes to systematically reduce its investment in underperforming quadrants. It was also able to clearly communicate its strategic goals and progress to its external funders, which helped sustain support for the organization among key stakeholders.

Figure 1: Value versus feasibility view of the R&D portfolio for an illustrative research-focused organization. Scores were calculated based on reviews by members of an external advisory board; “aspirational” and “expected” performance thresholds were determined by the organization’s senior leadership team and held constant from year to year. Bubble sizes are proportional to R&D investment; colors reflect distinct R&D domains.

This particular organization also looked more closely at common attributes of projects in less desirable quadrants-which provides a strategic view currently missing in most pharma R&D portfolio reviews. In this case, a deeper analysis of low-performing projects revealed that they scored poorly on metrics related to commercialization feasibility, which was weighted as one of the organization’s top strategic priorities. Much of the gap in this domain related to the involvement of academic collaborators, who were less focused on projects that could deliver economic returns. Over the following year, the organization refocused its prioritization criteria to drive a higher concentration of projects into the high-value, high-feasibility quadrant, and it was able to quantify its progress in the following year’s portfolio analysis.

How this process could help pharma companies

A key element of this process that warrants highlighting is the involvement of an external advisory board, in which one of us (FSD) has actively participated. Although many organizations fear the loss of control from involving outsiders in their decision-making process, an external perspective, including subject matter experts with no affiliation with the organization, provides critical benefits for strategic R&D portfolio planning. When pharma companies rely solely on either employees or external parties with longstanding relationships to evaluate research programs, they frequently obtain biased assessments and skewed results. In addition, combining various perspectives on the evaluation board allows an organization to obtain a much broader view of the quality and direction of its portfolio.

The strategic portfolio assessment process described here can provide several advantages for pharma companies. First, it operates alongside and complements existing portfolio reviews-which remain critical to allocate budget and track resources-without adding undue administrative burden to R&D staff or senior managers. Second, it provides a quantitative, reproducible method to define the aspirational “ideal” balance of cost, risk, and reward; track performance toward it over time; and motivate the organization and its leaders to be accountable for the portfolio’s objective performance. Third, it provides strategic context for evaluating the potential impact of pursuing specific new R&D programs, whether sourced internally or through licensing and acquisition. Fourth, because the process is transparent, reproducible, and reliant on prespecified criteria and external assessors, it enables executives to objectively and dispassionately evaluate the portfolio’s distribution across disparate R&D areas (e.g., oncology versus immunology). And finally, it yields a simple, visual summary that clearly conveys the firm’s R&D priorities and performance to employees, directors, and investors.



1. Matheson JE, Menke MM. 1994. Using decision quality principles to balance your R&D portfolio. Res Tech Manag 37(3):38-43. doi: 10.1080/08956308.1994.11670982.

2. Cook D et al. 2014. Lessons learned from the fate of AstraZeneca's drug pipeline: a five-dimensional framework. Nat Rev Drug Discov 13(6):419-31. doi: 10.1038/nrd4309.

3. Eliashberg J et al. “Portfolio Management in New Drug Development.” In Innovation and Marketing in the Pharmaceutical Industry: Emerging Practices, Research, and Policies (M. Ding, J. Eliashberg, and S. Stremersch eds.), Springer, 2014, pp. 83-118. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4614-7801-0_3.

4. Scannell JW et al. 2012. Diagnosing the decline in pharmaceutical R&D efficiency. Nat Rev Drug Discov 11(3):191-200. doi: 10.1038/nrd3681.


Frank S. David, MD PhD, is founder and managing director at Pharmagellan LLC. He can be reached at frank@pharmagellan.com; and Greg Belogolovsky is associate director at Navigant. He can be reached at greg.belogolovsky@navigant.com