Elastoplast to skin graft

Blue Chip: Smith & Nephew is trying to revamp its 'dull but worthy' image by entering the futuristic biotech market

Smith & Nephew, the Elastoplast to Simple Soap medical products group, has been rather bypassed in the return to favour of health and pharmaceuticals stocks over the past year or so. Although the shares are up 29 per cent since the beginning of 1995, they have underperformed both the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors and only barely outperformed the growth in the general market.

But all that could be about to change. This week Smith & Nephew's shares caught a whiff of the boom in fledgling biotech companies when it signed a deal with Advanced Tissue Sciences, a California-based bio-tech group which is developing what is claimed to be world's first "off the shelf" artificial skin. Since the announcement of the link-up, the share price has risen 6 per cent to 196p as the market has woken up to the possibilities of the deal.

That was an eye-catching transaction - not just because the prime source of the raw material is babies' foreskins, one of which can provide the basis for enough skin to cover six football pitches. The skin replacement, trade-named Dermagraft, is initially targeted at the $2.5bn market for the treatment of chronic diabetic foot ulcers.

Dermagraft could provide relief to a substantial part of that market. After eight weeks, the skin is said to be indistinguishable from the original, providing a more cost-effective and successful substitute for existing methods of treatment. Smith & Nephew chief executive John Robinson believes sales could be $500m, but cautiously suggests, based on past experience, that it could take 10 years to get there.

Even so, Stephen Putnam of the group's brokers Kleinwort Benson suggests sales could be breaking through the pounds 100m mark by the year 2000, with margins well over 20 per cent. He believes the potential of Dermagraft could be worth up to an extra 2 per cent to the group's growth rate over time. Smith & Nephew will share the profits with ATS, but its capital payments to the Californian group are limited to a maximum of $70m and even that is dependent on sales targets being achieved.

The Dermagraft deal is just the latest manifestation of Smith & Nephew's attempt to cast off its "dull-but-worthy" image. It follows an earlier development joint venture with ATS, signed nearly two years ago, for artificial cartilage for knee and, possibly, spine injuries. That project involves greater risks. Cartilage is still 10 years away, whereas Dermagraft could be available for use at the end of next year. But the prize is glittering none the less: the knee-injury market alone is worth $1bn.

All this is not just science fiction. Smith & Nephew has already launched an artificial bone material in the US which will initially be used for repairs to the middle ear, but could eventually provide more durable hip joints, opening up a substantial market.

Such moves are helping to change the market's perception of the group. Smith & Nephew is not a drugs company, so apart from speculation last summer when Johnson & Johnson were touted as showing interest, it has not really participated in the frenzy surrounding pharmaceuticals over the past 18 months.

At the same time, many of the group's businesses have been hard hit by the pressure on healthcare budgets which has emerged this decade in reaction to the freewheeling 1980s, when drug companies' sales expanded on the back of apparently limitless expenditure on health. Growth has been further diluted by less hi-tech, "commodity" businesses, including the manufacture of surgeons' gloves. So, while respectable, recent sales growth has been no match for that of the of the big drugs groups which have been less affected by the spending squeeze.

But Mr Robinson has been slowly and determinedly refocusing the group on higher-margin areas where it has strong positions. Last year the group walked away from the last of its pharmaceuticals businesses and also got out of surgeons' gloves. At the same time, acquisitions last year strengthened the group's already powerful position in equipment for keyhole surgery and therapeutic and rehabilitation devices.

Despite these signs, there remains a degree of scepticism. Its record on acquisitions is still coloured by the huge pounds 148m write off it took last year on the disposal of Ioptex, the eye implant business, bought in 1988 just before the market peaked.

If profits hit pounds 190m this year, rising to around pounds 205m in 1997, the forward price/earnings multiple falls from 17 to 16 over the next couple of accounting periods. Given the pressures still surrounding the group, that probably represents fair value.

Smith & Nephew

Share price 197.5p

Prospective p/e* 17

Gross dividend yield 3.8%

Year to 31 July

1993 1994 1995 1996* 1997*

Turnover pounds 949m pounds 965m pounds 1.026bn pounds 1.1bn pounds 1.17bn

Pre-tax profit/(loss) pounds 165m (pounds 5.5m) pounds 177m pounds 190m pounds 205m

Earnings per share 10.6p (4.96p) 10.3p 11.6p 12.5p

Dividend per share 4.91p 5.28p 5.65p 6.05p 6.50p

* Kleinwort Benson Securities forecast

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£16500 - £16640 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing Finance compa...

Ashdown Group: Client Services Manager - Relationship Management - London

£30000 - £32000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Recruitment Genius: Credit Controller / Customer Service

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding business...

Guru Careers: In-House / Internal Recruiter

£25 - 28k + Bonus: Guru Careers: An In-house / Internal Recruiter is needed to...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea