Novalar Tests Market, Learns a Few Things, Before National Rollout of Dental Drug

10/5/09Follow @xconomy

While making small talk on my last trip to the dentist, I mentioned that as a biotech journalist, I sometimes interview entrepreneurs who create new dental products, like the Sonicare toothbrush. The dentist, maybe to test if I knew what I was talking about, asked me what cool ideas I’ve seen lately. I stammered a little before mentioning the San Diego company with a drug that makes anesthesia wear off faster so dental patients can get back to work.

My dentist hadn’t heard of it. And, I’m sure Novalar CEO Donna Janson will be chagrined to learn, I couldn’t remember the product’s name off the top of my head, either. But it reminded me that it had been a few months since I first wrote about this first-of-a-kind drug, phentolamine mesylate (Oraverse). So it was time for a follow-up with Janson to see how the initial marketing campaign is going.

It’s been more than six months since San Diego-based Novalar kicked off its marketing campaign at a dental meeting in Chicago in late February and early March. Some 30,000 people attended that meeting, including some leading dental researchers, and Novalar spent a few marketing bucks by holding a reception at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The initial buzz from the meeting translated into about 2,000 customers after about six months, although not all have re-ordered the product, Janson says. The Novalar drug has been introduced in six major regions around the country that are serving as test markets.

The original plan was to hit the test markets for six to eight months, staff up from 55 people to 100 with a national sales force, and go after the whole country with gusto. Novalar has decided to hold off on that more ambitious plan for at least a few more months, seeking to learn more from its experience in the test markets before it goes after the bigger territory.

“We’re pushing out to 2010 our national launch to learn a few more things,” Janson says.

Just to remind those who missed the initial story on Novalar last November, here’s the basic business idea. Something like 275 million cartridges of local anesthetic are used in U.S. dental offices each year for filling cavities or other procedures, which can leave patients with a numb mouth for five to six hours. For many patients, it’s hard to eat, drink, or speak. Novalar’s innovation was to take a common vasodilator drug that re-opens blood flow to gums, lips, and cheeks, to reverse the vasoconstrictor effect of anesthesia. The Novalar drug usually makes anesthesia wears off in half the time, offering added convenience for patients in a hurry to get on with their day. At $12.50 per vial for its drug, if Novalar can convince one-fifth of dental patients to go for this product, it could create a $300 million to $400 million annual market of its own.

Sounds great, but one of the things Novalar has learned is that it takes more time to explain the value of its product than originally thought, or at least to get dentists to incorporate a new category of product into their standard business practices. Not just dentists, but hygienists, and even front desk people sometimes need to have a working familiarity with the product and its benefits, Janson says. Sometimes Novalar has found it effective to host lunches at a dental office to get all the key players to hear the message at the same time, as well as the usual brochures you’d expect about the product’s benefits.

The average dental practice has a lot of leeway in how it chooses to incorporate this product, which has no real equivalent or competitors, Janson says. Novalar sells the drug for $12.50 per dose on average, and some dentists are passing on an extra $15 to $30 cost to patients. Others absorb the cost on their own, and offer it to patients for free to help differentiate themselves from competing dentists. Others just raise their overall fees, and incorporate the Novalar un-numbing drug as part of their overall service.

Part of the Novalar strategy is to raise consumer awareness for the product, without breaking the bank on marketing. Part of the plan is to meet top dentists at meetings like the one in Chicago, and the American Dental Association’s annual conference, which wrapped up over the weekend in Honolulu, HI. The company doesn’t do glossy magazine ads, and I couldn’t find any mention of its product on Twitter or Facebook searches.

Instead, Novalar is focused more on a public relations campaign, which has caught the attention of local TV reporters like Steve Atkinson at Channel 10 in San Diego, coaxing him and others to do on-air spots about the people using the new product. The day we spoke a few weeks ago, Janson noted that the company had gotten 93 media placements that mentioned its product, and that this was a good way to build relationships with dentists.

“Some of the dentists are getting on local TV because of the product,” she says.

What’s probably equally or more important is some of the early feedback from patients, who are saying the drug is performing better than advertised, Janson says. Two clinical trials with 484 patients showed that the Novalar drug restored normal sensation in the lower lip about 85 minutes faster than patients who didn’t get the drug. The company has heard some instant feedback from patients who say it appeared to work even faster for them. If more of those stories start trickling out, it surely won’t hurt the company’s effort to go national.

“It’s rare that you have a product where you know the efficacy right away,” Janson says. “Hopefully we’ll see more good testimonials.”

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