Driven by a mission to reduce maternal mortality and boost female healthcare in the Philippines, a highly specialized biopharmaceutical company fast-tracks its growth and expansion plans in a country where generic medicines reign supreme

After 25 years spent building a name for herself in the country’s highly competitive pharmaceutical industry, Jane Villablanca was well on her way to retirement.

Having held various sales, marketing and key management positions in companies like Johnson & Johnson, Schering Plough, Cathay Drug, and Merck Sharp & Dohme, Villablanca had already made her rounds in the industry. By 2012, she decided it was high time she took on the more active role of doting mom to her two young daughters. “Working for the pharmaceutical industry is so fast-paced that before you know it, you’ll wake up and realize you’ve been working for so long without pause. I waited so long to have kids, and yet I didn’t get to spend enough time with them,” she shares.

In the pharmaceuticals biz where it’s quite commonplace to get pirated by other companies, it isn’t exactly surprising that the moment Villablanca handed in her resignation, the job offers came. This was because “a lot of companies from India, Pakistan, Korea, China were keen on establishing offices in the Philippines because the market had opened up,” she says.

A COMPANY AFTER HER OWN HEART

It was Switzerland-based Ferring Pharmaceuticals that finally coaxed Villablanca out of “retirement” and made her its general manager. A research-driven specialty biopharmaceutical company with market presence in 60 countries worldwide, Ferring Pharmaceuticals develops innovative products in the areas of reproductive health, urology, gastroenterology and endocrinology. It has the world’s largest portfolio of peptide-based medicine and excels in recombinant protein and biological therapeutics.

“During this time, generics medicine had risen in popularity and it was very rare to establish companies offering premium products,” Villablanca shares. But even with market conditions being as they were, she avers the company could not have expanded into the Philippines at a better time.

More than the growth potential in the Philippines being the second fastest growing economy in Asia, it’s the government’s current focus on universal healthcare that makes gives Ferring Pharmaceuticals a vital reason to strengthen its presence in the market.

It used to be that healthcare was at the bottom of the government’s agenda, Villablanca says, but “it’s now a key priority. For one, 85 percent of the proceeds of the Sin Tax Law will go to healthcare, which is very good. PhilHealth is expanding its coverage, and then there’s the enactment of the Reproductive Health Law. The Philippines is a growth market, and Ferring wants to be present here.”

The controversial RH Law also has a component that hits close to home. “When people talk about the RH Law, the contraception part is always the one that’s hyped up,” Villablanca says. “But the other side to it—the pro-conception or pro-creation part—is just as important as it includes the treatment, management and prevention of infertility,” she asserts.

Ferring currently offers a full line of products useful in every stage of IVF or In Vitro Fertilization. Based on controlled clinical trials, its product, Menopur, resulted in 13 percent more live births compared to other agents. “This is something quite close to my heart as I myself have undergone four IVFs. That time, IVF success rates were not as good, but now that the Philippines is actually more advanced in terms of fertility treatment, I thought that by helping a company like Ferring enter the Philippine market, I would be able to make a difference by giving infertile couples a better chance of starting a family,” she says, citing that in the Philippines, it is estimated that around nine percent of Filipino couples have infertility problems.

MAKING SPECIALIZED HEALTHCARE ACCESSIBLE

Only less than a year old in the Philippines, Villablanca shares that Ferring Pharmaceuticals is quite keen on collaborating with the government and the medical community in bringing value-added innovative products that will provide life-changing impacts in the areas of reproductive health.

Having headed CSR projects for her previous company, Johnson & Johnson, CSR is clearly in Villablanca’s blood. “There are really a lot of areas where we can partner with the government,” she says. Reducing maternal mortality, in particular, is something Villablanca is looking to get the company involved in.

In the Philippines, about 211 mothers die for every 100,000 childbirths. This rate is very high compared to the goal of the Department of Health, which is to bring the number down to the Millennium Development Goal of less than 50 deaths for every 100,000 births. “We have products that will help save the lives of mothers during childbirth by preventing post-partum hemorrhage and delay imminent pre-term birth,” shares Villablanca, adding that they have also partnered with MSD and the World Health Organization in this regard.

“You’d be surprised that even big hospitals like Makati Medical Center would have mothers dying from childbirth,” Villablanca shares. “It doesn’t just happen in rural areas, in lying-in hospitals—and it’s not just the mothers’ lives at stake here. The kids, ulila na sa nanay. So imagine the difference Ferring’s products can make,” she says.

In a very fertile market like the Philippines where there are two million births every year, there is indeed a lot of potential for a company like Ferring to further elevate the level of healthcare available in the country. It helps, perhaps, that the DOH is of the same mindset. “When we inaugurated the company a few months back, our president from Switzerland came here and met with Usec. Teodoro Herbosa. He explained to us what happened in PH—how healthcare has improved and how we have funding now. My boss was really pleased with what they saw and decided to immediately accelerate their investments here,” reports Villablanca.

While this spells more work for the new general manager—“The plan was to grow gradually, but now they told me to accelerate everything by two years,” Villablanca shares, laughing—it is definitely a good problem to have.
Published July 6, 2014 in the Business Agenda section of the Manila Bulletin

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