Bill Meury, Allergan’s EVP and president, branded pharma (pictured left); Brent Saunders, Allergan’s president and CEO (pictured right)
Let’s get this out of the way right up front: Neither Allergan CEO and president Brent Saunders nor EVP and president, branded pharma Bill Meury are all that thrilled that the federal government scuttled its merger with Pfizer. They couch their frustration in words like “disappointed” and “surprised” and in phrases like “it was somewhat of a distraction.” They shrug, as if to ask, “What can you do?”
At the same time, mere days after the deal collapsed, Saunders and Meury had nary an air of regret about them. Indeed, as they sit together in a bright, cavernous conference room at Allergan’s U.S. headquarters, in Parsippany, New Jersey, they exude confidence, competence, and enthusiasm about the company’s current arc. Owing to its product-line depth in seven therapeutic categories and a host of novel treatments on the way — plus the imminent infusion of $40.5 billion when the sale of its generics business to Teva is soon finalized — Allergan is well on its way to reinventing itself as a next-gen commercial powerhouse. And that likely would have been the case even if it had ultimately ended up under Pfizer’s roof.
“We had a contingency plan,” Saunders says. “While [it was] a little disappointing, it was also energizing.”
It’s worth noting, as Saunders does, that at a maximum, 150 of Allergan’s 30,000 people were working on the Pfizer integration — half a percent of the company’s workforce — and that everybody else was “focusing on what [they] get paid to do,” as Meury puts it. To wit: Roughly 12 hours after the Pfizer news broke, Allergan announced a deal with Heptares Therapeutics to license exclusive rights to a range of potential treatments for neurological disorders, among them Alzheimer’s disease.
That acquisition serves as a nifty microcosm for Allergan’s approach circa mid-2016. The company’s strategy, as articulated by Saunders and Meury, is about acquiring intellectual property in areas of high unmet medical need. Once it does, Allergan can put the pedal to the developmental and regulatory metal, evolving intellectual property into novel medicines.
The eagle-eyed among us might notice the absence of “discovery” in that articulation of the Allergan model, which is obviously no accident. “There’s not a ban on drug discovery. We’re not allergic to drug discovery, but we want to do it smartly,” Saunders says. “We want to do it where we have conviction that the investment has the right payoff — not just financially, but scientifically. While we appreciate great science, we are in the business of producing medicines and cures. The journey from great science to approved drug is long and I think our success rate should be measured around whether we get over that hurdle.”
From the 2016 Pharma Report: All the data in one place
Allergan doesn’t care where innovation comes from, so long as it keeps coming. That, in a nutshell, is the foundation of its strongly held belief in the notion of “open science.”
As Meury explains, “There are thousands of biopharmaceutical companies doing great work. Our approach lets us not only rely on our internal scientists, but also that worldwide network of companies. It’s the most efficient way to solve the number one problem every company has, which is new product flow.”
To that end, Allergan expects its top people to spend a considerable amount of time each quarter with customers and at industry klatches (“to be in the bonus pool, you have to do it,” Saunders notes). Why? Because inspiration generally doesn’t strike while hanging out in the company cafeteria.
The seed for the idea that led to the purchase of double-chin treatment Kybella was planted after Saunders and others sat down with a host of dermatologists and plastic surgeons. Those meetings informed Allergan’s emergent strategy to “own the face,” which ultimately prompted the acquisition of Kythera.
Similarly, a Saunders ride-along with a GI rep promoting Linzess solidified in his mind the wisdom of snapping up IBSD drug Viberzi. “There was a lot of skepticism around the product profile back then, how it was going to be scheduled and what the label would look like. That extra customer interaction really pushed my thinking over the edge,” Saunders recalls.
These and other acquisitions have given Allergan considerable depth in each of the seven therapeutic categories in which it competes. While there’s plenty of industrywide disagreement as to the number of products a commercial organization can juggle at once, Allergan has structured itself in a manner to take advantage of the breadth of its offerings.
“There are major strategic, promotional, and economic advantages to having multiple products for the same customers,” Meury says. “There isn’t a specialist in CNS and GI and eye care that won’t see an Allergan rep, because there’s a high probability they’re using at least two or three of our products. Depth becomes an advantage if you learn how to manage it.”
From the 2016 Pharma Report: Spending on drugs is up, but by how much?
As a result, interesting opportunities abound. In women’s health, Allergan is tackling the scourge of uterine fibroids with Esmya, a drug currently in phase III testing that could transform the model of treatment. Fibroids are now tamed via invasive procedures; Esmya would shift the treatment paradigm to an oral therapy. It’s already a success north of the border.
Allergan is addressing another area of therapeutic need — depression — with a similarly novel approach. As opposed to existing SSRI or SNRI therapies, of which there are around 20 on the market, Rapastinel is an NMDA modulator. As such, it could help patients deal with both the so-called maintenance aspect of depression as well as acute episodes.
To describe its potential, Saunders draws an analogy with the cholesterol space. “There was a lot of excitement about new cholesterol treatments, and certainly there is a place for innovation and the management of high cholesterol and LDL, but the generic alternatives are pretty strong there,” he says. “When you look at the depression space, well, there are lots of alternatives [that] are all of the same class. People tend to cycle through those alternatives.”
From the 2016 Pharma Report: An index of the top 20 drugmakers in 2015
It’s clear that Meury’s excited about Rapastinel’s potential. He similarly animates when conversation turns to Allergan’s Oculeve device for treating dry eye, quipping, “It looks like Apple developed it, it really does.” While one can count on zero hands the number of pharma commercial execs who have ever shared a sentiment along the lines of “yeah, we’re not all that psyched about our future prospects,” both Saunders and Meury sound a genuine enthusiasm.
More important, there’s a concreteness underlying their every assertion. They might be preaching the innovation gospel, but their aspirations to that end feel grounded in scientific fact and economic reality.
Toward the end of the conversation, Meury noted that “if you’re comfortable with the status quo, Allergan can be a very challenging place to work.” Perhaps, then, it’s the industry’s gain that the Pfizer deal never reached the finish line. We might not have gotten to see what happens next.