Vivus hooks up with Menarini to hawk ED pill Spedra in $121M deal

If you've been following the Vivus ($VVUS) proxy fight, you know the company's lack of marketing muscle has been a big point of contention. Proxy challenger First Manhattan has aired its grievances loudly: In its eyes, Vivus should never have attempted to market its new obesity drug Qsymia without the help of a partner experienced at primary-care drug marketing--and a large, established sales force that could fan out across the country, Qsymia promo materials in hand.

To hear many analysts tell it, First Manhattan has a point. Qsymia won't reach its potential without some serious promotional oomph, they say. Vivus CEO Leland Wilson recently said he's in talks with "large pharmaceutical companies" on marketing the drug, but critics haven't eased up.

Now, Vivus may still lack a marketing partner for Qsymia. But it has signed up some help rolling out its new erectile dysfunction treatment Stendra. You know the one: It was approved by FDA last year, but it's still on the shelf at Vivus, awaiting launch. Approved in Europe last month under the brand name Spedra, the drug will make its debut with the help of Vivus's new partner, Menarini.

The Italian company paid €16 million up front for the right to roll out Spedra in 40 European countries, Australia and New Zealand. The deal is worth up to €95 million ($121 million), plus royalties if all targets are met. Vivus will also supply the drug for Menarini to sell. Chairman Alberto Giovanni Aleotti figures Menarini can launch Spedra in major EU countries early next year. "We are eagerly preparing for the launch," Aleotti said in a statement.

With the annual meeting and proxy vote coming up next week, Vivus is patting itself on the back for inking this deal. It's true that launching Stendra will be a step forward, but Menarini will be going up against Viagra and Cialis, which have been on the market for years. Plus, both drugs still have the full force of Big Pharma marketing behind them. Eli Lilly ($LLY) spent $162.8 million advertising Cialis last year, and though DTC ads aren't legal in most markets, they are in New Zealand. And this level of ad spending shows the promotional scale Stendra will be up against. Plus, in some countries in Europe, Viagra has already or will be going off patent, so Stendra will also have to compete with cheaper generics.

Vivus recently unveiled data from a study showing that Stendra works quickly--in about 15 minutes--giving it a marketing angle to use against the established ED drugs. And Menarini isn't wholly unfamiliar with the "men's health" market; it bought a premature ejaculation treatment, Priligy, last year from Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ). The company plans to field a sales force of 1,350 to promote Spedra, Vivus said.

Whatever the eventual success of the Menarini partnership, the very fact of it shows that Vivus really is willing to put a product in the hands of a marketing partner--and that the company has been able to find one and actually make a deal. That's something to tout to shareholders before next week's vote.

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