Rachel Braun Scherl and her business partner Mary Wallace-Jaensch, veteran drug marketers, were looking for a new idea two years ago when they found Zestra Laboratories Inc., a South Carolina company floundering in federal bankruptcy court in Wilmington.
Zestra sold an ointment made of evening-primrose oil and other old-time plant remedies, applied to women's intimate parts, promising "deep pleasurable sensations, sooner, deeper, longer." It boasted studies from a dozen U.S. commercial contract research labs claiming the stuff works. It's regulated, not under strict federal drug guidelines, but as a cosmetic.
To Scherl and Jaensch, given the potential market of millions of women, this was a no-brainer. "This business came across our desks, and we thought, 'How hard can this be?'," Scherl told me. The women financed Zestra's bankruptcy reorganization and refounded the company as Semprae Laboratories Inc., with offices in Saddle Brook, N.J.
They convinced Ira Lubert's Philadelphia-based Quaker BioVentures, whose clients include the state of Pennsylvania's retirement plans, to invest $2.5 million in Semprae so they could expand marketing. Quaker partner Adele Oliva joined the board as chairman. Stacie Mullen, marketing executive at Horsham diet-food vendor NutriSystems, and Lucinda Duncalfe-Holt, who's headed a string of venture capital-backed software-makers in the region, also took board seats.
Since then, Scherl says 75,000 women have bought Zestra, at $3 a dose, online and at Wal-Mart, Rite-Aid and other discount stores.. But they've had a tough time getting support from doctors. "The medical health community is really opposed to medicalizing" female sexual satisfaction problems and calling it a disease, Scherl said.
Why the different standard? "Male anatomy is a hydraulic system. Plug the blood in, it works. Women's is so much more complex," says Scherl. "It has psychological elements, physical elements, behavioral elements, social or contextual elements... When I ask focus groups, 'What's great sex?', women give 100 different answers."
They also have a tough time buying TV ads. CBS and NBC initially turned Zestra's soft-sell ads down, Scherl says. "ABC said we could only air during Jimmy Kimmel." ESPN, which runs penile-enhancement ads, told Zestra's buyers it made exceptions for those products when the advertisers are Nascar sponsors. So Semprae weighed an offer to become a Nascar sponsor, too.
It's unfair, says investor Oliva, when "Viagra can buy billions of dollars in ads."
"It's okay for Viagara or Ciales to discuss an erection in their ads," said Beth Bronfman, chief executive of NewYork ad agency Leibler Bronfman Lubalin Corp., which represents Zestra. "But we haven't been able to clear this, and nobody will give us a reason. If we were Johnson and Johnson, I don't think we'd have this double standard. But they are not used to this product category yet."
I can't personally tell you if this stuff works. When I asked her - purely hypothetically - the only woman I'm licensed to have sexual relations with told me, "No way. We've already got six children."
I asked her to run it by her gynecologist, a hard-boiled woman recommended to her by the doctor and nurse who delivered our twins. My wife, who loves her gyno, called back to report her reaction: " 'For women, sexual desire is mental. People already spend too much money on sex,' and then she went on and on, complaining about Obamacare."