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J&J drug unit to leverage Singapore's biotech hub

The Business Times by ANNABETH LEOW


JOHNSON & Johnson's (J&J) regional pharmaceutical head believes that Singapore offers innovation, research and development tie-up opportunities, even as wider insurance coverage in the Asia-Pacific is expected to fuel growth for drugmakers.

Ong Ai Hua, the group chairman for Janssen Asia Pacific, the pharmaceutical arm of J&J, told The Business Times that "our focus in Singapore is on innovation - not so much on manufacturing".

"We are always on the lookout for the best science. We are very agnostic on where the science comes from. It's not country-specific, and neither is it geography," said Ms Ong in her first media interview since assuming her new regional role in June last year.

Potential acquisitions in the biotechnology sector here has not been ruled out, she added.

"And we believe Singapore does have a very lively biotech hub. That's the reason we're so active on external collaborations. And we want to be in the game early, to partner together."

Janssen's recent global deals include the US$30 billion privatisation of Swiss cardiovascular medicine company Actelion last year, and a bid this May for biotechnology firm BeneVir Biopharm which was reportedly worth as much as S$1.04 billion.

Ms Ong said her team believes that innovation is "very high up on the agenda" of the government, and an area where "collaboration will elevate the country's agenda and also our network of innovation".

For example, Janssen and Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research teamed up in February to fund three studies - on myopia, the p53 cancer gene and fatty liver disease - at institutions here.

"When we talk about innovation, it's really on every front, not just an R&D lab, because there are things that people are doing already," said Ms Ong. "We look at external partnerships, and a lot of our innovation model is on external collaboration."

Ruling out the idea of being "a company for all", she added that Janssen's global growth will remain driven by its niches in immunology, oncology and neuroscience, "regardless of which market we operate in".

"How we go to the market, how we provide access with the healthcare providers and the healthcare systems, that will differ.".

For instance, working with hospitals to teach staff about new treatment regimes and protocols is needed in a "very diverse" region, as disease awareness - especially in large markets such as Japan and China - may be "comparatively lower than in more developed markets like Britain, France or even the United States".

Ms Ong noted that while growth factors such as ageing and chronic ailments are found worldwide, healthcare companies in the Asia-Pacific stand to benefit from a rise in government and private health insurance, compared with more developed markets where coverage is already high.

India and South-east Asia are lower market priorities than East Asia or Australia for the same reason, she added. "The healthcare system, in terms of reimbursement, in terms of health insurance, is at a lower level. Second (factor) is the constraints on diagnosis and healthcare professionals."

Last year, J&J reported US$36.3 billion in full-year pharmaceutical sales, with the Asia-Pacific generating about one-tenth of that.

J&J's 15,800 sq m regional headquarters in Science Park, which opened in May, houses more than 1,000 employees - and positions in supply chain, finance, regulatory compliance and an innovation lab are "areas where we foresee growth".

Ms Ong was previously president of One J&J Southeast Asia, an initiative to streamline business operations across the multinational giant's consumer products, medical devices and pharmaceuticals divisions.

As J&J's first Singaporean company group chair, she aims to groom regional staff. "I take it as a duty to be able to elevate our Asia-Pacific talent to take on future leadership positions and be part of the global leadership talent pool."