WHIPPANY, N.J. (AP) — The German conglomerate that invented aspirin over a century ago wants to take over much more of your medicine cabinet.
Bayer AG is boosting its presence and brand in the U.S., the world's biggest medicine market. Bayer is increasing everything from marketing and research operations in the U.S. to the number of its nonprescription medicines in pharmacies and grocery stores.
The U.S. expansion is part of the 153-year-old company's transformation from a chemical-and-dye manufacturer, a business it spun off last year, to a pure "life sciences" company focused on the health of people, pets and plants.
"I hope that over the next few years, people will learn that Bayer is more than aspirin," Phil Blake, Bayer's U.S. president and head of pharmaceuticals for the Americas, said in an interview at its U.S. headquarters in Whippany, New Jersey.
Bayer's strategy is a departure in an industry in which companies typically swim together in the same direction. Bayer is focused on expanding in the U.S., while other top drugmakers are concentrating on increasing sales and manufacturing in Asia and other developing markets.
The world's 14th-biggest drugmaker already sees signs its strategy is paying off. Last year, Bayer's sales jumped 28 percent to about $14 billion in the U.S. and Canada, where consumer health sales soared 66 percent and prescription drug sales jumped 23 percent. Global revenue rose 12 percent, to nearly $51 billion.
"The U.S. is the most important country for Bayer," said global innovation chief Kemal Malik.
Bayer, based in Leverkusen, Germany, boosted its research budget last year 21 percent to $4.7 billion. And it's doing more in two areas rivals have mostly abandoned despite huge unmet need and millions of patients: heart disease and women's health.
Bayer is doing more research collaborations in the U.S., like its deal with Johns Hopkins University to develop medicines for vision-damaging diseases. It's also has a partnership with Massachusetts startup CRISPR Therapeutics, to develop new therapies for blood disorders, blindness and other conditions.
Across the U.S., Bayer has been hiring hundreds of scientists, factory workers and salespeople, and enlarging or building new research labs, offices and medicine factories.
It funds a San Francisco "incubator" housing startups developing experimental medicines and related technology. And it's pouring $1 billion into new greenhouses, factories for crop-protecting chemicals and development of seeds that can withstand climate change.
A key part of Bayer's U.S. strategy is expanding its consumer health business.
That's been driven by its 2014 purchase of Merck & Co.'s consumer health unit for $14.2 billion. The combined business vaulted to No. 1 in U.S. consumer health sales, surpassing Johnson & Johnson.
Iconic Bayer aspirin, patented in 1899, holds 62 percent of U.S. market share among aspirin brands. Sales are still growing, up 7 percent last year to $520 million worldwide.
Pain relievers and vitamins aren't sexy, but they have appeal: Development costs are low, advertising can quickly boost sales, products attract few lawsuits compared to prescription drugs, and they sell steadily for decades.
Bayer now markets 170 consumer health products, 17 with annual sales topping $100 million. Those include Bayer's own One A Day and Flintstones vitamins, Aleve pain reliever, Alka-Seltzer and Phillips' Colon Health, plus former Merck products including Claritin, Coppertone and Dr. Scholl's foot products.
The expanded consumer health portfolio now holds more prized eye-level supermarket and pharmacy shelf space, which boosts sales. Bayer now markets the former Merck brands worldwide, which helped it increase total consumer health sales 30 percent last year.
Bayer hopes its newest medicines — cancer drugs Xofigo and Stivarga, Xarelto for preventing blood clots, Eyelea for preventing blindness and Adempas for high blood pressure in lungs — will reinvigorate its U.S. prescription drug business that had declined following Bayer's 2001 recall of a cholesterol drug linked to patient deaths.
Bayer is a leader in women's health, selling Yaz, Yasmin and other birth control pills; Mirena and other intrauterine devices, and Essure, an implant for permanently preventing pregnancy. Last month, U.S. regulators required that Essure bear its strictest warning, noting chronic pain and bleeding in some users, and ordered Bayer to conduct new safety studies.
It has recently become a contender in cancer medicines, jumping from one a decade ago to three today, with two dozen more in patient testing, innovation chief Malik said. Meanwhile, under a new partnership with the American Association for Cancer Research, Bayer will give U.S. scientists grants to transform ideas for new cancer targets into medicines.
Marijn Dekkers, Bayer's CEO since 2010, anticipates multiple study results over the next year will spawn several drug approvals, for conditions including heart failure, lung infections and kidney disease. Last month, U.S. regulators approved its Kovaltry, a drug that reduces bleeding episodes in hemophilia patients.
"We have a lot of upside potential," said Dekkers, who retires on May 1 and will be succeeded by Bayer strategy chief, Werner Baumann.
To lift its profile among U.S. consumers, Bayer boosted its marketing and social media efforts.
It's been running TV ads for 17 consumer brands, double its 2010 total. It's offering discount coupons online and in newspapers. And it's put the Bayer cross logo, previously reserved for its aspirin, on all products.
Bayer has doubled its social media staff, started an Instagram page, added U.S. content to its Facebook page and increased its Twitter posts sevenfold, with product and other news, quizzes and links to sites offering product coupons and tips on related disorders.
It's also creating new products just for the U.S., like TruBiotics immune supplement and Aleve PM, and over-the-counter versions of some prescription drugs.
Erik Gordon, an assistant professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, said Bayer can raise U.S. sales significantly with its larger product lineup and increased marketing. Meanwhile, its metamorphosis to a pure life sciences company should boost research productivity.
"They're more likely to have a bright future by doing this than not," Gordon predicts.
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