Is Shield Therapeutics plc a better bet than AstraZeneca plc?

Do hares always beat tortoises? Are speedboats better than ocean liners? Are small-cap startup companies better than the established giants for growing your investment cash?

A lucrative startup?

The question must have crossed a few minds when reading today’s first-half results from Shield Therapeutics (LSE: STX), which floated on AIM as recently as February 2016.

Shield describes itself as a “specialty pharmaceutical company focused on the development and commercialisation of late‑stage, hospital‑focused pharmaceuticals.” It reported its first revenues, of £240,000, from sales of its iron deficiency anaemia treatment Feraccru after it was approved in February. It’s a modestly-priced medication, but chief executive Carl Sterritt described its pricing agreements as attractive, and sales should also commence in Germany in October.

It’s hard to put any kind of valuation on Shield’s 159p shares at the moment, as there are no profits forecast yet, and consistent losses pencilled-in for this year and next. The firm did have £28.4m in cash on the books at 30 June but with pre-tax losses of £18m-£19m per year forecast for this year and next, there’s going to be some more fundraising needed before any profits start rolling in.

Where does this leave Shield Therapeutics as an investment possibility? It’s not a total blue-sky punt as it does have a marketable product and does actually have sales cash coming in, but other than that I see it as pretty much straight gambling if you invest right now — it looks like one of those companies that could make you a very big profit it it comes good, but could lose you your stake if it doesn’t.

Tried and trusted?

Are you better, then, to stick with an established blue chip pharmaceuticals company like AstraZeneca (LSE: AZN)? AstraZeneca was struggling against the expiry of patents and increased competition from generic drugs when Pascal Soriot took over as chief executive in October 2012.

Mr Soriot’s shake-up was severe, and it was always going to take a few years to rein in the firm’s falling earnings and return them to growth. I’d optimistically hoped for EPS growth by 2017, but that seems unlikely now, with falls of 2%-3% forecast for this year and next. Still, if we see EPS growth in 2018, that really won’t be a bad turnaround result at all.

I’m a little surprised that the price has spiked by a third since the middle of June to 5,164p. That’s taken the shares to a forward P/E multiple of 16.4 for 2017, though interim results on 28 July saw second-quarter falls across the board. It was all in line with expectations, mind, and there’s really nothing new that wasn’t known six months ago.

I suspect the price recovery is simply down to investors re-appraising the value of good old safe and solid shares like our big pharmaceuticals players, partly in the sobering light of the EU referendum result. And they’re realising that P/E ratings of around 16 or so aren’t at all stretching for dependable investments providing dividend yields in excess of 4% and which should be generating profits for decades to come.

At least, that’s the way I see AstraZeneca, and it would nice to think the market does too.

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Alan Oscroft has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended AstraZeneca. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.