Depomed drawing on digital savvy--and 250 reps--to relaunch Nucynta franchise

Depomed ($DEPO) has big plans for the Nucynta franchise it picked up last week from Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) for $1.05 billion, and they start with a relaunch.

The California company says it will reintroduce Nucynta and Nucynta ER with a beefed-up field force of more than 250 reps, focusing on its dual mechanism of action as the only FDA-approved opioid for both chronic pain and nerve damage caused by diabetes.

Depomed, which already boasts an established pain therapy lineup, says its current sales force targets overlap about 70% of the Nucynta prescriber base, which will help it leverage relationships with key prescribers. With the sales corps expansion, it's gearing up to take that number higher.

Depomed has plenty of launch experience under its belt, though it didn't plan things that way. Just two weeks before its first treatment--shingles pain-fighter Gralise--won FDA approval in 2011, Abbott Labs ($ABT) bought Depomed's marketing partner, Solvay. And Abbott reminded Depomed that it wasn't obligated to follow through on Gralise's rollout.

Depomed CEO Jim Schoeneck outside the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference

Armed with $88 million from the pharma giant--a $48 million milestone payment and a $40 million launch penalty--Depomed set out to bring the product to market itself, despite being "woefully behind" on the launch, CEO Jim Schoeneck told FiercePharmaMarketing at last week's JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. And in the process, it learned a thing or two about effective promotion.

It helped to have a clean slate. From the beginning, the company focused on answering these questions: "'How can small be an advantage?' 'How can not having legacy systems be an advantage?' 'How do we build some things on the way we would want them to be, not considering how companies have done it for years?'" Schoeneck said.

And that meant casting aside traditional paper visual aids, opting to equip its sales force with iPads instead. "We wanted to set ourselves up as a cutting-edge company," he said.

Two years ago, Schoeneck took that a step further, challenging the team to quit going to New York ad agencies. Located amid Silicon Valley's hotbed of digital innovation, Depomed has since developed relationships with local firms in the digital marketing area.

"It's brought a lot of efficiency in terms of the advertising part of promotion. We're working with people at the cutting edge of being able to get eyeballs on Gralise ads … The technology is out there to be very targeted with those ads," he said. So far, Gralise sales have shown it, climbing to $36.2 million in 2013 after reaching $17.3 million the year prior.

It's a path the helmsman is very glad his company took--and one he intends to continue following. "You're out here in Silicon Valley, and whether it's your neighbor or whoever else you're talking to, they're doing some of this, and for us not to take advantage of it just seemed absolutely silly," he said.

And if Depomed had shied away from the challenge of launching Gralise four years ago, there's little chance it'd be readying itself to fold in Nucynta. "If we had done that, I don't think there's any way the company would be where it is today," Schoeneck said.

- read Depomed's release

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