Many serious diseases lack safe and effective vaccines. Using a large commercial database, we examined trends in global vaccine research and development and found that the proportion of new vaccine candidates entering all stages of clinical development increased by 3–5 percentage points over the past two decades. Small and medium-size companies accounted for nearly twice as many new Phase I vaccine trials compared to large companies, but late-stage (Phase III) vaccine trials were dominated by large companies. There were no significant differences between vaccines and drugs in the probability of success in clinical trials or in profitability. Small and medium-size companies, including spin-outs from academic research centers, play an important role in innovative research and discovery. Our findings suggest that policy making targeted at smaller companies, such as prizes or opportunities for public-private partnerships, could support the development of new vaccines, particularly those targeting unmet medical needs and emerging public health threats.