The rise of the CRO
March 2 , 2020

By PharmaTimes magazine

Dr Chris Doherty discusses the rise of clinical research organisations (CROs) from his vantage point as managing director at Alderley Park.

Around the time he was helping draft the US constitution Benjamin Franklin produced an adage that many corporate investors live by to this day: “Be studious in your profession, and you will be learned. Be industrious and frugal, and you will succeed.”

The growth of contract research organisations (CROs) in biopharma often seems to mirror this outlook. CROs continue to prove attractive to venture capitalists and other funders. They are flourishing because the business case for taking elements of drug discovery out of house and contracting with dedicated specialists has demonstrated itself to be sound. The notion of an industrious collaborator that allows an organisation to maintain the sharpest possible focus on innovation has delivered efficiency gains and helped the industry adopt a more measured approach to overheads.

The restructuring in our industry over the last decade has doubtless helped drive the growth of the CROs, but it’s important not to see this trend in isolation. Globalisation and technological advances are part of a bigger wave that pushes all industries, regardless of sector, to be lean and find new ways of working. Contracting out has long been commonplace in the automotive sector, for example, and in the reshaped world of pharma, commercial collaborations have gained credibility and traction.

The success of CROs has come to be regarded as good medicine for pharma, and, in turn, continues to prompt deals that consolidate key players within the different levels of the sector. M&A activity has moved us from a highly fragmented CRO marketplace to one with a handful of giants and a middle ground where a new generation of significant participants is making its presence felt. At the entry level, meanwhile, there’s a myriad of specialists operating across a broad spectrum of services and therapeutic areas.


The dynamism in the CRO market is not going away and the next wave of expansion could well see CROs either merge with or acquire data companies. Technologies have a way of converging and the alignment of big data and using it to streamline clinical developments is an intriguing possibility. The relentless rise of information technology and digital health has deep implications for clinical trials, for example.

The need to make data-driven decisions and elevate the quality of trials by leveraging technology is already making its presence felt and CROs are becoming part of the solution. Data mining of complex trial data is now a service area. The days of one or two endpoints are passing, there’s now a much wider area of complex data explored.

CROs can thrive, operating in an environment where they have easy access to a large pool of potential collaborators and customers all focused on the same imperative: growth.

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