Exubera has catapulted Nektar Therapeutics to a new level - one for which its comms team is ready
The day the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Exubera was a great one for Pfizer, the drug company marketing the first inhalable insulin product.
The event also brought unprecedented attention to Nektar Therapeutics, the biotech that developed Exubera, helping put the company on a whole new level.
At Nektar's San Carlos, CA, headquarters, reporters were "banging down our doors," recalls Jennifer Ruddock, associate director of corporate communications, about that January day. Interview requests poured in from national print and broadcast outlets, and many local stations called searching for b-roll.
Partnerships between biotech and pharmaceutical companies are common in drug development. The former invests the time and resources into R&D and the latter uses its mighty marketing muscle - and more recognizable name - to bring the product to commercial reality.
Such unions have also been the dominant business strategy for Nektar, which has more than a dozen partnered products that are currently approved or being tested.
In addition to Exubera, its portfolio includes well-known items such as Neulasta (with Amgen), Pegasys (with Roche), and Macugen (with Eyetech).
The biotech is now transitioning from a company that licenses its compounds to larger pharmaceutical companies to one that does its own sales and marketing. It currently has four proprietary products in development: two in the pre-clinical phase and two that are advancing through the first two phases of clinical trials.
"When you partner a product, you can only get a certain amount of royalties," says Joyce Strand, director of corporate communications. "Exubera will take us to one level; [proprietary programs] will take us further."
The launch of Exubera enabled that evolution. It also represented a turning point in the company's history, allowing it to attract new investors, business partners, and even employees.
"We have tied profitability to the launch of Exubera," says Strand. "We get calls from new investors looking at us. We're definitely going to leverage it."
Nektar's proposition is to take compounds with an established efficacy and find a better way to deliver them into the body. For instance, insulin has long been a hallmark of diabetes treatment, but required patients to live with daily injections, sometimes multiple times a day. Exubera, however, could allow many diabetics to switch to inhaled insulin - and go virtually needle-free.
Similarly, Nektar is developing a cystic fibrosis product with Chiron that allows a commonly used antibiotic to be delivered through a cheaper, more portable inhaler, rather than a nebulizer.
Each partnership is different. With Chiron, for instance, the two biotech companies collaborated on joint messaging. Still, Ruddock notes these publicity efforts will usually lead with the name of the larger company in order to generate interest both from the media as well as investors.
With Exubera, Pfizer had the responsibility for promoting the product. But both companies decided from the beginning of their partnership that the biotech's piece of the outreach effort would be to talk about its role in developing the technology.
"We are the pioneers behind it," explains Ruddock. "If [each company's] role is decided up-front, that enables the out-reach ... to turn out better. We communicated with someone about every single inquiry that came in."
Strand also notes that it's important for both companies to collaborate on PR - to the point where both partners are legally prohibited from disclosing new information to the public without first notifying the other.
Having a better-known company listed on press materials certainly attracts attention, Strand concedes. And the PR team often finds Nektar mentioned in secondary articles on Exubera, like stories about Pfizer's state-of-art manufacturing facility in Terre Haute, IN.
Building its own relationships
But the biotech company does more than just ride on its partner's coattails. Strand and Ruddock also build their own relationships with many of the journalists that cover Nektar's products.
Months before Exubera's approval, the company conducted informational interviews with reporters from The Associated Press, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, and other publications.
Its messages focused on Exubera's unique delivery system, and the history of inhaled insulin. The PR team also arranged interviews with Nektar's cofounder, John Patton.
"It is not enough just to have Pfizer put our name in the press release," Strand emphasizes.
Yet its outreach is perhaps more targeted than its partners', and focuses on the titles geared toward what it considers key audiences: hospitals and investors.
"We don't focus on consumer media because we're a b-to-b company," Strand says. "Even our proprietary products are targeted at hospitals."
But the PR team doesn't discount the value of general media coverage, and the excitement of receiving recognition for years of hard work. "It was great for employees," Ruddock says about the stories that appeared after Exubera's approval. "They got to see themselves on the news that night."
Nektar is now hoping to leverage the attention from Exubera to promote its proprietary products, all of which are still in the early stages of development. "The challenge is communicating the value of proprietary [products] when they are in pre-clinical trials," Strand says.
"It's a company that's known as a great partner because of its drug-delivery prowess," says Fern Lazar, president of Lazar Partners, which was retained in February to help Nektar during its transition. "Instead of being the 'Intel inside,' I think that they have to develop their own relationships with physicians and, maybe, eventually patients. That's completely new territory."
Nektar can also license its technology to new partners who want to experiment with using the delivery systems with different drug combinations.
"It's a very important time for them," Lazar says. "We're entering a time when drug delivery will again become an important option for companies."
Strand and Ruddock handle all media, investor, community, and government relations, and even as the company builds its own marketing team, the communications group will remain at its current size of two PR pros, which is just fine with Strand.
"I tend to like small, very effective teams," she says.
San Carlos, CA
Revenues and latest earnings:
$126.3 million for fiscal year 2005
Aradigm, Valentis, Acusphere
Key Trade Publications:
BioExecutive International, Drug Delivery Technology, Pharmaceutical Executive
SVP, business development and marketing, Dr. Hoyoung Huh
Director of corporate communications, Joyce Strand
Associate director, corporate communications, Jennifer Ruddock
Marketing Services Agencies:
PR: Lazar Partners