Does the world need another headache remedy?
Arlington-based GM Pharmaceuticals thinks it does, investing about three years into an over-the-counter pain reliever. The small, family-owned drugmaker has two decades of experience in prescription medicines, but a nonprescription product means a whole different system for distribution and marketing.
The company got VanaPain into its first convenience stores in November, including some Valero and Shell stations. Now it hopes to convince one of the big drugstore chains to stock it.
Obviously, it’s not the consumers’ only option. The multibillion-dollar market for pain relievers ranges from the humble (but still effective) aspirin through its over-the-counter competitors like Tylenol, Advil and Aleve to prescription-strength opioids.
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VanaPain is a two-ounce, $2.99 dose of a liquid pain reliever in a small bottle the size of those now-familiar energy shots. Each bottle has choline salicylate, related to aspirin, as its painkiller, and there’s a daytime version and a nighttime version.
The daytime formula adds 65 milligrams of caffeine — roughly as much as an 8-ounce cup of regular coffee (not something supercharged like the 260 mg of caffeine Starbucks says is in its 12-ounce cup of Pike Place roast). The nighttime version leaves out the caffeine and substitutes diphenhydramine HCl, a generic form of Benadryl, as a sleep aid.
In both formulas, the liquid form means “it’s all absorbed quickly” compared with just downing an aspirin tablet or pain pill with a glass of water, said Odes Mitchell, who started GM Pharmaceuticals in 1991.
Sounds simple. But any drug comes with extra regulations attached to its manufacture and marketing. It took Mitchell close to three years to find the right combination of ingredients and packaging to bring VanaPain to market.
The company’s first effort at a pain reliever was a combination of caffeine, vitamin B and ibuprofen, the generic form of Advil and Motrin. But it came in a package of two tablets, which wasn’t popular with consumers, and “it wasn’t moving very well. So we abandoned it,” one of the few products GM Pharmaceuticals has given up on, Mitchell said.
He eventually settled on choline salicylate, which unlike aspirin can be stored in liquid form. It also has the advantage of already being recognized as safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration, which allows a new product with the ingredient to forgo new testing that can cost millions, Mitchell said. Likewise, he said, caffeine has been used for years in combination with pain medication.
Unfortunately, that also means other companies are free to develop a similar product, and they have. Goody’s, known for its headache powder, introduced a liquid acetaminophen/caffeine product in June. And last last year a Seattle company called First Aid Shot Therapy introduced a liquid salicylate/caffeine product, although Mitchell says he has filed for a patent on VanaPain’s formula.
Mitchell said he just has to focus on what he’s done. He found a contract drugmaker in Carrollton to manufacture VanaPain, found another supplier for the bottles, trademarked the name and used an attorney to vet the label to meet FDA guidelines.
In some respects that’s the easy part.
Even in this day of YouTube and social media, “for a lot of goods it’s still pretty much the same story” when it comes to launching a new product, said Eric Yorkston, associate professor of marketing at TCU’s Neeley School of Business in Fort Worth. With a convenience-oriented product like VanaPain, that mostly means getting on retail shelves where shoppers can see it, Yorkston said.
Not social media?
“We don’t go to social media for everything,” Yorkston said of consumers’ shopping habits. “Most of the time, we’re not really looking to interact a lot” with products that are mostly based on convenience, like a pain reliever, he said.
GM Pharmaceuticals managed a first marketing step in November, using distributors to get into at least 1,000 convenience stores, a number expected to grow to 2,000.
Which is not to say the company isn’t giving the Internet its due as well.
Leah Mitchell, Odes Mitchell’s daughter and a Texas Tech grad, oversees marketing efforts for VanaPain. The brand is on Facebook, Twitter and other popular websites, and its home page, vanapain.com, sports a new online commercial that is also posted to You Tube, she said.
Starting in March, 10,000 bottles of VanaPain will be sent to customers of Bulu Box — a monthly subscription service like Birchbox that sends product samples to customers based on their interests.
Those efforts should help GM Pharmaceuticals when it approaches the national drug chains at an industry meeting this month, Leah Mitchell said.
“They want to hear how we’re addressing marketing,” she said, so consumers will have a reason to pick up the product.
“They need the most distribution they can get,” Yorkston said of the company’s efforts. “It’s really difficult to get that space. If the customer’s not asking for you, it’s hard to convince the stores to carry you,” he said.
Odes Mitchell said that “after a year, we need to be at about 125,000 bottles a month,” which will take continued marketing efforts. He hopes VanaPain is just the first in a string of new over-the-counter products over the next decade for GM Pharmaceuticals, which he said has about $5 million in sales from its nine prescription products, with three more on the way this year.
“Prescription medicine has been very good to us,” he said. But in his view the scale that comes with a successful consumer product could put the company at another level.