Horizon’s CEO, Tim Walbert, will reportedly get around $135 million when the company is sold to Amgen. He has mastered a particular kind of industry expertise: taking drugs invented and tested by other people, wrapping them expertly in hard-nosed marketing and warm-hued patient relations, raising their prices, and enjoying astounding revenues without spending one dime on drug development.
At the American College of Rheumatology’s annual meeting in 2008, Duke University’s Dr. John Sundy proudly announced that pegloticase, a drug he’d helped develop, was astoundingly effective at treating severe gout, which affects perhaps 50,000 Americans. But Sundy also disclosed an unsettling detail: In one clinical trial, patients who got the drug were more likely to develop heart problems than those who didn’t.
But that didn’t stop Horizon.
They have done their marketing — courting patients with concierge-like attention and engaging specialist clinicians with lunches, conferences, and research projects while touting his experience as a patient with a rare inflammatory disease.
Horizon won’t name the diseases but has said they had taken the anti-inflammatory injectable Humira since 2003 when he led that drug’s commercial launch as a vice president at Abbott Laboratories.
A year later, it gained control of Krystexxa, and in 2017 it bought, for $145 million, a failing company that produced Tepezza, a drug for thyroid eye disease, which causes unsightly eye bulging and pain.
The company conducted additional clinical research on Tepezza and Krystexxa but also spent heavily promoting these and other drugs to specialists who could prescribe them.
To ensure patients keep using its drugs, clinicians say, Horizon staff negotiate with insurance carriers. The company offers drug discounts to lower-income patients while swaddling them with attention from its medical staff.
“Horizon has a nurse talk to every patient before every appointment,” said Dr. Brigid Freyne, who treats around half a dozen patients yearly with Krystexxa at her Murrieta, California, rheumatology clinic.
While at Abbott, Walbert pioneered direct-to-consumer advertising for specialty drugs like Humira, a trend that aggravated insurers, who correctly anticipated that they would soon be shelling out billions for expensive drugs.
Horizon recently started a publicity campaign addressed to all gout sufferers, urging them to see a rheumatologist or a nephrologist — the specialists it has targeted with Krystexxa educational materials — before the disease does too much harm.
In short, Horizon has taken a failed drug and wrapped it up in hardcore marketing to make it profitable. For that, the CEO will pocked well over $100 million.