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Elderly Care and Localisation Key to Entering Japan's Pharma Sector

While this year's CPhi Japan, Tokyo's largest pharmaceutical expo, welcomed a sizable contingent of overseas exhibitors, foreign companies still have a lot to learn if they truly want to be sure of success in this notoriously singular market.

Photo: Within its boundaries, Japan’s pharma-culture has a number of unique national characteristics. (Shutterstock.com)
Within its boundaries, Japan's pharma-culture has a number of unique national characteristics.
Photo: Within its boundaries, Japan’s pharma-culture has a number of unique national characteristics. (Shutterstock.com)
Within its boundaries, Japan's pharma-culture has a number of unique national characteristics.

The increasing internationalisation of the Japanese pharmaceutical sector was particularly noticeable at this year's CPhi, a Tokyo-hosted expo geared to the needs of Japan's robust ranks of pharmaceutical professionals. Equally noticeable was the high-profile presence of an enlarged contingent of overseas exhibitors, all of whom seemed relatively sanguine about their prospects in the previously forbidding Japanese market.

Overseas businesses do, however, have to contend with a variety of obstacles when trying to move into Japan, not least of which is how best to communicate with prospective clients and business partners, while also factoring in the tricky issue of localisation. In Japan, this often includes having to recognise its traditionally "softer" approach to medicine, which manifests itself in a preference for milder dosages and the use of more natural medical ingredients. On top of that, of course, the sensitivity required for dealing with the country's increasing number of elderly patients also has to be mastered.

With regard to expos, presentation is also always an issue in the pharmaceutical market. Unlike businesses in other sectors, exhibitors cannot simply show their products. This absence of a 3D centrepiece drives many exhibitors to over-compensate and sees them drowning prospective clients below copious mounds of 2D information. Indeed, at this year's CPhi, some exhibitors still persisted in plastering their stands with lists of products and their various chemical characteristics, manufacturing history and profiles of the companies behind them. And, of course, slogans. Plenty of slogans. And mission statements. Plenty of those too. In fact, the sheer volume of well-meaning, well-intentioned wall-to-wall testimonials verged on the overwhelming.

This year, though, some exhibitors had the confidence to take a more aesthetically led approach. One such promotional pioneer was Tokyo-based Biobridge, an importer of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), intermediates and speciality chemicals, as well as a registration agent and in-country caretaker for a number of pharmaceutical suppliers. This time around, instead of resorting to exhaustively listing its business activities and all its certifications and compliances, its attractively designed stand was, apart from the company name, totally text-free. The effectiveness of such an approach, however, may not be apparent until it becomes clear as to whether or not they are still around to exhibit in 2020.

Regulatory Issues

With few visual cues on offer, it was left to Representative Director Yoshikazu Ohno to outline Biobridge's role as an intermediary between overseas pharma companies and the Japanese market. Summing up its positioning rather concisely, he said: "As a company, we liaise with overseas API manufacturers. We also take care of the regulatory compliances and accreditation required when entering the Japanese market. Due to the language barrier and the peculiarities of Japanese law, it can often be a little difficult for overseas operators to get established here."

Biobridge currently represents a wide range of overseas manufacturers, including the German biopharma firm Gehrlicher, and Wavelength Enterprises, an Israeli drug manufacturer and API developer. While tactically choosing not to confirm that Japanese medical regulations are overly strict compared with the rest of the world, Ohno did acknowledge that many of the products his company represents are still awaiting a Japanese DMF (drug master file) registration certificate, the documentation required prior to the sale or distribution of any pharmaceutical product in Japan.

Establishing overseas contacts, though, is only one aspect of Biobridge's business. Equally important is its ability to build a rapport with Japanese clients and identify their primary needs. Confiding that this was the main reason the company remains a CPhi exhibitor, Ohno said: "Our business is all about identifying needs and suggesting solutions to our customers, which is why attending this particular event is always high on our agenda."

Client Concerns

Echoing Ohno's sentiments was Osamu Shirota, Customer Service Manager of Teva API Japan, the Tokyo-based subsidiary of one of Israel's leading manufacturers of APIs and generic drugs. Maintaining that sales in the sector depend on nurturing relationships and addressing client concerns, he said: "It's coming to shows like this that really make a difference. Facetime with our customers is important and it's an efficient way of doing it as everybody we need to know comes here."

Asserting that attending an expo was far less worthwhile from a new business point of view, though, he said: "In the B2B sector, signing up new clients at a trade show doesn't happen all that often. For us, winning new business is down to our product range. If a customer wants a certain product, as we have the most comprehensive portfolio in the market, they will seek us out."

As with Biobridge, Teva's business model is too complex for it to be usefully "info-boarded" across its stand in the style favoured by many of the smaller companies in the sector. Instead, they opted for a more aesthetic, text-free livery, one that might have been more at home in an art gallery than in a technically minded trade show.

Explaining why the company had chosen this particular approach, Shirota said: "A few years ago we did what a lot of the other exhibitors here are still doing and went heavy in terms of the wordage and promotional messages. We adopted this new approach last year and, to date, it hasn't occasioned any downturn in our business. Personally speaking, it's also an approach I prefer."

Gentler Vibe

It could actually be argued that the style of the Biobridge and Teva stands consciously evoked the softness and "natural" elements that appeal to many Japanese consumers. In line with this, herbal imagery abounded across the showfloor, while a softer, gentler vibe was also evident in the presentation of many of the products designed to make taking medicine a little easier.

With older patients, the conventional routes for administering medicine can often be problematic. This has led to a growth in the number of products that claim to offer an easier and smoother alternative. Saitama-based Muromachi Chemicals, for example, had on offer a range of drug-bearing flavoured jellies in long, thin packs.

Outlining the product's advantages, Junichi Seto, the company's Medical Development Manager, said: "The jelly is made from turmeric, which is very popular in Japan on account of its health benefits. Our jellies are tasty and easy to swallow, unlike powders, tablets or capsules, which is reflected in our slogan – 'Good medicine tastes good'."

Seto also highlighted the convenience factor, which he sees as an additional selling point. Although this kind of medicine-delivery system is largely aimed at young children and the very old, he also believes it is becoming generally more popular across the whole of Japan, saying: "You can use it on the go. No syringe or pill case is required. You just need to carry the sachets with you."

New Technology

One drawback with this method of delivery is that mixing certain medicines directly into a jelly can cause chemical reactions. It's a problem, however, that Softigel, a Colombian pharma company, claims to have solved with its Unigel range of soft gelatine capsules.

Photo: Information overload: A typical pharma show booth.
Information overload: A typical pharma show booth.
Photo: Information overload: A typical pharma show booth.
Information overload: A typical pharma show booth.
Photo: Unigel: For a more digestible dosage.
Unigel: For a more digestible dosage.
Photo: Unigel: For a more digestible dosage.
Unigel: For a more digestible dosage.

Highlighting what makes the product different – and safer – Alvaro Franco, the company's Business Development Vice-president, said: "This is a patented new technology and sees us able to place a tablet or a soft gel inside a bigger soft gel. This makes it easy to swallow and it optimises the absorption rate. We have also designed gels with different release profiles so you can manage the speed of the absorption, slowing it down or accelerating it.

"In instances where the ingredients may not be compatible, meaning you cannot mix them in the same solution, our product allows you to isolate an ingredient in the tablet, coat it and put it inside a soft gel. This means you can have two different ingredients in the same capsule with both having different release profiles."

Softigel's range of products include a bottle of gummy gels aimed at children and a progesterone hormone product for elderly post-menopausal women. While such products show an awareness of the needs of the older demographic, the strategy adopted by Sinopharm, a Shanghai-headquartered API manufacturer, goes several steps further.

According to Jack Guo, the Business Manager of the company's Overseas Business Division, Sinopharm introduces between 10 and 15 new APIs every year, many of them targeted at elderly Japanese patients. Explaining how the company segments its range, he said: "All our elderly care products are allocated into one of four categories – anticancer, cardiovascular, common elderly illness or products where we see ourselves as having a particular advantage.

"The last category relates to products that we've been producing for a very long time and where we see ourselves as being the established market leaders. The other three categories, though, are totally geared to the requirements of the Japanese elderly care market."


Another interesting development at the show was the continuing rise of "cosmeceuticals". Typically, these are hybrid products that combine cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, usually either health products / medicines that have a beauty aspect or beauty products that have a medicinal benefit.

Many of the brand leaders in this particular field tend to be South Korean companies, with one exhibitor – Seoul-based Hana Pharma – a prime example. Explaining the synergy between certain cosmetic and pharmaceutical products, Executive Director Chang Kun Hee said: "In the past, cosmetics were primarily colouring agents used to heighten beauty. More recently, cosmetic products have been developed with more specific applications, such as lightening or moisturising skin or counteracting wrinkles. As a result, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals are converging and overlapping, with the traditional boundaries blurring.

"This has also been reflected in our business-development programme. Some years ago, we established a skin clinic as we had to undertake clinical trials on ingredients we were producing for clients and on our own cosmetic products. Once we had adopted this more pharmaceutical approach, though, we found it made many of our prospective clients more receptive as they tended to distrust purely cosmetic companies. The fact that we could offer them clinical data seemed hugely reassuring from their point of view."

Photo: Headache-inducing: Dealing with the quirks of Japan’s more elderly patients is seldom stress-free. (Shutterstock.com)
Headache-inducing: Dealing with the quirks of Japan's more elderly patients is seldom stress-free.
Photo: Headache-inducing: Dealing with the quirks of Japan’s more elderly patients is seldom stress-free. (Shutterstock.com)
Headache-inducing: Dealing with the quirks of Japan's more elderly patients is seldom stress-free.

CPhi Japan 2019 took place from 18-20 March, at the Tokyo Big Sight Exhibition Centre.

Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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