Novo Nordisk became Europe’s most valuable company with the rise of Wegovy and Ozempic, but it’s facing stiff competition from a local pharma rival

A blockbuster weight-loss drug has turned Novo Nordisk A/S into a pop culture phenomenon as well as Europe’s most valuable company, but on its home turf the stock has been outgained by a much smaller rival.

Zealand Pharma A/S has so far risen 63% in market value on the Copenhagen stock exchange this year compared with 40% for its larger and much more famous peer. Analyst estimates indicate the stock could outperform Novo again in 2024.

Zealand is “a key beneficiary of the obesity thematic within health care both from an investor and industry perspective,” Rajan Sharma, an analyst at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., said in a Dec. 6 note. Sharma said he sees plenty of factors that could move the shares next year.

While the companies sit just a few miles from each other and both work on tackling obesity, Zealand differs in that one of its drugs employs a different mechanism. Another factor for the Zealand stock’s success may be that it caters to a different investor profile: those with small- and mid-cap mandates who can’t invest in Novo and Eli Lilly & Co.

“One of the reasons why Zealand has done so well is that it’s unique because it’s probably the only small/mid-cap investment case in Europe if you want to get in on obesity,” Suzanne van Voorthuizen, an analyst at Van Lanschot Kempen NV who has covered the stock for about five years, said in an interview.

Zealand changed its strategy in early 2022, slimming down its organization and focusing on the development of its obesity drugs. It has four such candidates in its pipeline, with the one furthest in the clinical phase, Survodutide, developed in partnership with Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH.

Even if Novo and Lilly as first movers take the lion’s share of the obesity market, the crumbs left for others entering later, like Zealand, may still be significant. Michael Shah of Bloomberg Intelligence estimates the weight-loss market may jump 32-fold to $80 billion by the next decade.

Most weight-loss drugs, including Novo’s Wegovy, are based on the GLP-1 gut hormone. While two of Zealand’s products target that hormone, it is also developing a treatment based on an amylin analog. That’s been one of its drivers on the stock market even though the product is at an early stage.

“The amylin analog could become a big thing for Zealand because it’s a differentiated asset for obesity and they still own all the economics,” van Voorthuizen said. “It’s promising that you do get weight loss, but potentially better safety or at least a very different profile from using a different mechanism.”

Zealand’s also working hard to explain the science behind its drug candidates to investors. It hosted an R&D event on Dec. 5, calling obesity the “greatest health-care challenge of our time” and bringing in some of the world’s foremost endocrinologists and metabolic researchers to take questions from analysts. Daniel Drucker, one of the co-discoverers of GLP-1, noted 40 years of research underpinning the biology.

“Key data readouts across our three clinical programs this year have increased confidence in our pipeline and positioned Zealand to become a significant player in addressing the evolving global obesity health crisis,” Zealand Chief Executive Officer Adam Steensberg said by email, in response to a question about the company’s progress on the stock exchange.

According to data tracked by Bloomberg, eight of nine analysts have buy ratings on Zealand and the average 12-month price target implies a 17% gain. Analysts covering Novo see only a 10% gain, on average, over the next year.

Zealand’s shares have also been helped by the announcement that it later this month will join the Stoxx Europe 600 index. The stock will also enter the OMX Copenhagen 25 index for the first time on Dec. 18.

Links between the companies are strong. Several of Zealand past and present managers have an employment history at Novo, including CEO Steensberg. The two companies also last year signed a license and development deal on a treatment for severe hypoglycemia in people with diabetes.

While Zealand has outpaced Novo and most pharmaceutical shares this year, it still has a long way to go before it would reach the size of its Danish peer. Zealand’s market value of 19.2 billion kroner ($2.8 billion), at less than 1% of Novo’s, is also eclipsed by the giant’s quarterly profit of 22.5 billion kroner.

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