Focus On: Upsher-Smith builds business with focus on novelty, quality
Innovation and products — those are the two foundations for Upsher-Smith Labs, the generic pharmaceutical company that celebrated its 100th birthday last year with a pledge that the next 100 years will be even more exciting than its first century.
It is heady times for the Maple Grove, Minn.-based company. Powered by the support of Japan-based Sawai Pharmaceutical, which acquired the company in 2017, Upsher-Smith aggressively is moving forward. The company has about 435 employees, 50 products and a new 300,000-sq.-ft. addition to its headquarters, which will house a proposed state-of-the-art manufacturing facility.
“Since its inception 100 years ago, Upsher-Smith has focused on creating innovative, life-enhancing products that the healthcare providers and patients can trust,” said Rusty Field, the company’s CEO and president. “Our founder, Alfred Upsher Smith, revolutionized the treatment of congestive heart failure by perfecting the refinement of digitalis and, for the first time in history, producing it in a standardized potency. Today, we draw on that tradition, as we continue to offer innovative, high-quality products that improve lives.”
In 2019, for example, Field said that Upsher-Smith acquired two branded treatments for acute migraine in adults: Tosymra (sumatriptan) nasal spray and Zembrace SymTouch (sumatriptan) injection.
“These treatments take a proven medication, sumatriptan, and utilize novel delivery systems that relieve migraine quickly and effectively,” he said. “Whether through acquisition or organic growth, we will never stop trying to bring innovative products to market that truly serve the needs of patients. We also continue our tradition of manufacturing high-quality generic products. Going forward, we plan to bring a greater diversity of generic products to a wider array of U.S. customers than ever before.”
Field views that building a sense of trust with its partners is the key to the company’s long-term success. “Our health partners trust us because they know we make high-quality, high-value products, and that we bring them to market in a consistent way,” he said. “We are totally committed to delivering for our partners — from suppliers to patients, pharmacists to physicians — now and in the future.”
Support from Sawai Pharmaceutical is helping spur sales and profits. Field said that Upsher-Smith and Sawai plan to leverage each other for worldwide growth, bring more value to stakeholders and help their patients. That backing also is allowing Upsher-Smith to continue expanding its Pathways Platinum Pass Program, a best-in-class savings and support program that Field said significantly can reduce out-of-pocket costs for patients.
Education also is a huge part of the services provided by Upsher-Smith, especially with new products like Tosymra. “We reach out to healthcare providers through various medical meetings. At the Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Headache Society, we introduced Tosymra to a broad audience,” Field said. “At the Child Neurology Society, we shared research about epilepsy, migraine prevention and Qudexy XR. We have also shared data on Vigadrone at the Annual Meeting of the American Epilepsy Society. Through meetings such as these and through our sales and marketing teams, we are constantly reaching out to share information about our products, as well as to spread the word about our savings and support programs, specifically the Access Pathways Platinum Pass.”
Not bad for a company that traces its roots back to the early last century. In 1919, the company’s namesake — a chemist and pharmacist, as well as a recent English immigrant to the United States and director of the well-regarded Minnesota Institute of Pharmacy — began his quest to take the cardiac drug digitalis to the next level of innovation. He tilled the fields of his Wayzata, Minn., farm, planted foxglove seeds into the soil, and later harvested their purple-and-white flowers to extract the drug. Upsher Smith started the company Upsher-Smith that same year, and operating in a laboratory in nearby Minneapolis, he figured out how to deliver digitalis in a standardized potency — an advancement never before achieved since the drug’s discovery, and one that put Upsher Smith’s fledgling business on the map.
Over time, physicians and pharmacists throughout North America made sure that this improved medication benefited thousands of people suffering from congestive heart failure and atrial fibrillation. Yet at mid-century, the pharmaceutical industry underwent a revolutionary transformation as synthetic drugs overtook those derived from plants and other natural sources, huge chemical conglomerates grew powerful, and the most successful companies invested heavily in building large sales forces. By the 1960s, despite its early promise, Upsher-Smith had receded into the background.
That all changed in 1969, when Ken Evenstad and his wife Grace received a call from one of her relatives. Her uncle Jim — James Upsher Smith — was selling the family business. Nearly extinct, Upsher-Smith was a very small company with a name that still meant something to pharmacies and pharmaceutical wholesalers and Evenstad, a 25-year-old, Minnesota-born pharmacist with entrepreneurial inclinations, but little money, wanted to buy it. Driven to become a pharmacist because he wanted to help sick people, Evenstad soon came to feel he could help patients even more through his business pursuits, so he scraped together $1,500 and became the new owner. He already had a product idea and had been looking for a vehicle for selling it.
Evenstad’s first venture was the product SSKI (potassium iodide oral solution, USP), an expectorant for certain lung conditions. The new product was a huge success and Upsher-Smith continued to break new ground, with pioneering advances in the manufacturing of unit-dose generic medications, which helped reduce drug dosing errors and improved the care of hospital patients. These advancements also ushered in a period of rapid growth, as sales reached $1 million by 1977, then doubled in only two years.
Upsher-Smith then capitalized on its momentum by introducing a series of new products and making a major real estate acquisition. The introduction of Klor-Con (potassium chloride) and anti-arrhythmic medication Pacerone (amiodarone HCl) tablets signaled the arrival of branded generics, and the purchase of Rosemont Pharmaceuticals in 2001 hailed the arrival of new expertise and additional manufacturing capacity. In short order, the company quickly built a new corporate headquarters in Maple Grove, added a Morristown, N.J., office to tap into regulatory expertise on the East Coast and then expanded the Maple Grove headquarters yet again.
Ken’s son, Mark Evenstad, took the reins of Upsher-Smith in 2003, having spent his formative years learning the business from the inside. Under Mark’s leadership, Upsher-Smith experienced tremendous growth. He expanded beyond generics into the production of innovative central nervous system branded therapies — the highlights being the development and launch of seizure disorder drug Qudexy XR (topiramate) extended-release capsules in 2014 and the ultimate FDA approval of seizure rescue drug Nayzilam (midazolam) nasal spray.
Today, the company is in the midst of a strategy to double its on-
market offerings. Last year, it launched Vigadrone (vigabatrin) for Oral Solution, indicated for the treatment of infantile spasms, further building on Upsher-Smith’s existing portfolio of epilepsy medications. Soon after, an exclusive marketing and distribution agreement for six ophthalmic and otic generics brought new dosage forms into the company’s portfolio. Then came the return of Klor-Con and potassium chloride product families — one of the company’s biggest product families — in 2019, positioning Upsher-Smith to continue manufacturing and again marketing private label and branded potassium chloride products.
Field said to expect more acquisitions of generic and targeted brand opportunities that will leverage the company’s capabilities and allow it to dominate its markets, as well as expand into new areas. “Over the next few years, through both internal research and development and external partnerships, we will substantially expand our pipeline,” he said. “This effort is being supported by an investment in infrastructure with the construction of a state-of-the-art, efficient, high-quality manufacturing facility at our Minnesota headquarters.”
“Upsher-Smith is one of the oldest, most trusted names in the pharmaceutical industry,” Field said. “For 100 years, we have brought gene-rics and brands to a wide array of customers backed by an attentive level of service, strong industry relationships and dedication to uninterrupted supply. Let’s think about where we could partner.” dsn