Oct. 3, 2013 at 2:55 PM ET
Call it the anti-Viagra. It's not a product for the man who can't get the party started. It's for the man who ends the party too soon.
Competition is heating up to treat premature ejaculation, or PE, which may afflict one-in-three men at some point in their lives—and not just when they're teenagers.
Yet while Viagra, Cialis and Levitra are multibillion-dollar impotency drugs for Pfizer, Eli Lilly and GlaxoSmithKline, the PE market is in the start-up phase. "How can these billion-dollar companies in the ED space not come up with a product?" asked Jeff Abraham, CEO of Absorption Pharmaceuticals.
His 4-year-old company makes and markets Promescent, an FDA-approved, over-the-counter spray to treat PE. The spray uses lidocaine to reduce sensitivity and allow for longer performance. It is absorbed quickly so as not to be transferred to sexual partners. "It doesn't diminish the climax," said Abraham.
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A rival product called Tempe uses prilocaine and is coming to market in Europe. It was created by Dr. Mike Wyllie, the man who invented Viagra. That drug has even received joking attention from late night host Jimmy Kimmel, who noted: "My parents live in Tempe."
Jokes aside, the real question is, what's taken so long? Way back when, Masters and Johnson determined that the average man reaches climax in about four minutes, while the average woman takes 10 to 20 minutes.
Men who suffer from PE usually don't last more than a minute. Current treatments include off-label use of antidepressants, which can have side effects. New products aim to avoid that.
Abraham said Promescent sales will hit $1.5 million this year and top $4 million in 2014. He credits the product's growth to referrals from a network of urologists.
Most sales are online, though Abraham is negotiating with retailers for more brick-and-mortar space.
The story of how Promescent came to market, though, is complicated by tragedy. The product was created by Dr. Ron Gilbert: "A guy you'd want your sister to marry," said Abraham.
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Gilbert was gunned down in his office earlier this year. The shooting may have been a case of mistaken identity.
"Ron's death was a complete tragedy, and it set us back," said Abraham. "We lost a tremendous amount of history." However, he feels the company's board has the scientific gravitas to keep moving forward. "No one person will ever stop the success of the company."
Abraham's own journey to the company was also unusual. He was the retired CEO of a semiconductor engineering firm who had become restless. Gilbert was his urologist. One day the physician told Abraham about Promescent and wanted advice on commercializing it.
Abraham eventually put in $700,000 of his own money and came aboard. The next year, Promescent was featured on "The Dr. Oz Show," and sales began to take off.
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Now men who are not suffering from PE are also starting to buy. Much like Viagra users who don't have ED, Absorption Pharmaceuticals sees customers using Promescent merely to prolong their sexual performance. "There is a tremendous recreational component," said Abraham.
"It's definitely effective," said Scott, a 53-year-old executive who does not want his last name used. Scott heard about Promescent from a friend ("We're a bunch of old guys, so we talk about everything"), and he went online and bought a bottle. "The first time I think I oversprayed, 10 to 12 sprays," he said. The result? "My wife got annoyed, like 'Enough already!'"
Since then he's adjusted his dose and says it has more than doubled his performance time. He added that, apparently, none of the Promescent transferred to his wife.
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Abraham believes the PE market could become bigger than the ED market, and larger companies are starting to take notice. He said he recently turned down an offer to sell the company for about $30 million.
"I know what I have, and I know what it's worth," he said.
He plans to sell eventually, in part to help provide for Gilbert's widow and two sons. "It's kind of bittersweet," Abraham said of the company's fledgling success now that its founder is gone. "I wish he was here to see it."
—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter: @janewells.
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