Exactly eight years into its full ownership of Alcon, Novartis will officially say goodbye to the eye care business on April 9.
The new Alcon shares will be listed on the Swiss Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange on April 9 under the ticker “ALC,” as the full spinoff has cleared key authorizations and rulings, Novartis said Friday. And once that's done, Novartis can “focus our capital and energy on building our core medicines business,” CEO Vas Narasimhan said on the company's fourth-quarter earnings call in January.
That plan will rest on the company's 11 projected blockbuster launches—including new indications for approved drugs—by 2020.
Some of the new products include spinal muscular atrophy drug Zolgensma (AVXS-101), which was the centerpiece of Novartis’ $8.7 billion acquisition of AveXis in 2018. It is expected to receive an FDA decision in May. Then there's macular degeneration candidate brolucizumab, a potential challenger to Bayer and Regeneron's Eylea. Novartis has completed its submission to the FDA and used a Priority Review Voucher to ensure a 2019 launch.
To focus further on pharma, under Narasimhan, Novartis sold GlaxoSmithKline its stake in the pair's consumer health joint venture and sold Sandoz' U.S. dermatology business and some 300 U.S. generic oral solids to India’s Aurobindo Pharma in a deal potentially worth $1 billion. Some over-the-counter ophthalmic products and surgical diagnostic products were also transferred from its Innovative Medicines Division to Alcon in preparation for the separation.
Excluding Alcon and the Aurobindo deal, Novartis expects sales in 2019 to grow mid-single digit at constant exchange rates.
The spinoff marks the end of almost 11 years of Novartis’ connection with Alcon. It was a bumpy ride, but the journey ended on a high note at the eye care enterprise.
Novartis bought Alcon in three tranches. It first obtained a 25% stake in Alcon from fellow Swiss company Nestlé in 2008. Then in 2010, it exercised the call option to buy out the remaining 52% interest Nestlé had. But the drugmaker ran into some resistance when it tried to take in the other 23% of shares from minority shareholders. After a yearlong tug-of-war with Alcon directors, Novartis finally closed the full merger on April 8, 2011.
Then-Novartis CEO Joseph Jimenez touted the “significant” cost-cutting and growth potential the deal could bring, “as Alcon will be the eye care development engine for our best in class research organization, and will leverage the Novartis market access capabilities outside the U.S.,” he said in a statement in Dec. 2010, when the two reached a definitive agreement. At that time, Novartis called Alcon the world’s largest and most profitable eye care company.
But the deal didn’t turn out as Jimenez had expected. Lagging sales held back Novartis for several years and turned the unit into a potential sell-off target among investors.
Things started turning for the better in the first quarter of 2017, when the unit finally returned to growth for the first time since 2015’s second quarter. Shortly after the portfolio again delivered sales growth, of 7% in first quarter 2018, new CEO Narasimhan seized upon the opportunity and announced plans for the spinoff.
Alcon’s good performance continued through 2018. Full-year sales totaled $7.15 billion, up about 5% year-over-year, as core operating income grew 10%. And Alcon's core margin as percentage of sales also increased to 17.9% from 17.3% in 2017. Moving forward, the unit is aiming at margins to hit in the low- to mid-20s by 2023.
In its 20-F submitted in November, Alcon pointed to the aging population and increasing access to eye care, especially in emerging markets, as potential growth opportunities. But the eye care industry across Alcon’s two business segments—surgical and vision care—is highly competitive, the company noted in the filing. It faces strong rivals from the likes of Carl Zeiss, Meditec, Bausch Health and Johnson & Johnson.