Thinking of starting a business in Japan? Just do it!

Marty Roberts, CEO of Tokyo based MedTech startup, enTouch

Marty Roberts, CEO of Tokyo based MedTech startup, enTouch

Long-term Japan resident and clinical psychologist Marty Roberts, Ph.D says wannabe entrepreneurs should not let fear of inexperience stop them from starting a business. The 39 year-old Roberts plunged into his own MedTech startup last year through which he aims to disrupt Japan’s healthcare industry.

Roberts moved to Japan from Brooklyn in 2008 after becoming good friends with the CEO of French based global healthcare research company, Cegedim. Commuting by car through The City on his way to Cegedim’s N.J. offices, he always gave the CEO a lift to and from his Manhattan hotel room. One day his boss asked, “What do you want to do?” Roberts said, “I want to get out of New York.” The CEO asked, “Where do you want to go?” Roberts replied, “India, France, Germany, Japan…” His boss interrupted, “Japan? I need someone in Japan.” Roberts spent the next 10 years running Cegedim’s Japan operations, managing some 200 employees.

There, he created new products, including a physician database, smartphone data collecting software, and new customer relationship software. After the firm was bought out in 2015, Roberts decided to launch his next product idea on his own.

The company he founded, enTouch, aims to cut the cost that Japanese pharmaceutical companies pay to pitch their drugs to doctors using digital technologies. Big Pharma is under pressure from government to lift the percentage of generic drugs that doctors prescribe from 61% to 80% by 2020. The government must achieve that target to keep Japan’s medical costs from spiraling out of control as by 2025, all baby boomers will have turned age 75 or older.

Pharma currently employs armies of high priced medical sales representatives who call on doctors. A big firm might employ 2,000 or 3,000 reps costing $100,000 – $200,000 each. They spend a lot of time waiting to get just one or two minutes of face time with doctors. The physicians are either busy or don’t wish to take the time. Rising visitor restrictions further prevent reps from meeting doctors in hospitals. “Pharma is in a tight bind,” notes Roberts.

EnTouch’s platform makes better use of the time that reps and doctors spend with each other by holding meetings over a tablet or PC. Moreover, doctors can schedule appointments when it suits them. The less pressured doctors are then more focused, spending on average 25 minutes with reps, compared with 2 – 5 minutes in a traditional face-to-face hospital visit. Because doctors are better informed, drug sales rise by 88% following a first session, versus 40% after a normal hospital visit.

Physicians also complete a satisfaction survey after each session. The data is used to make sessions more relevant, for instance incorporating content that doctors wish to learn, pitched to their level of product knowledge. The feedback fills a database which, when analyzed by an algorithm, determines where each doctor is on the product adoption ladder—from being aware of a new drug, to trying it, to using it, to becoming a loyal customer.

Clinicians answer the surveys because it helps them to remain at the top of their game. It also gives them satisfaction knowing they are helping firms make better drugs that help their patients. “It is a smarter way for Big Pharma to communicate with physicians,” thinks Roberts.

In practice, launching his venture was tough. Forming the management team was tough.  Getting the first finance was tough. Securing initial customers was also tough. It seemed impossible to solve the circular riddle of how to raise finance to make the product, before having a paying client. Roberts likens the experience to climbing a mountain: “Right when you think you’ve got to the top, you realize there is another peak to climb.”

Initial funding, office space, and mentoring came from a Tokyo based serial entrepreneur who Roberts had joint ventured with while at Cegedim. The Japan Finance Corporation provided enTouch with a loan to get the startup moving too. “There is support out there, but you have to seek it out,” he says.

EnTouch’s first customer was a medical device company with limited resources. The firm greatly increased the client’s reach and shortened its sales cycle by half, in part because reps had plenty of time to show doctors how to assemble the device. After securing the first customer, enTouch started working with a top 30 global Pharma company, followed next by a large Japanese Pharma company. Now they’re piloting with generic drug companies wanting to get their own messages out.

One great challenge was recruiting reps who were not actively looking for a job.  Roberts wanted to hire newly retired older reps who already knew all the doctors and their secretaries in their territories. He also wanted to hire younger females who had left Big Pharma to raise children. (Yes, male doctors often prefer working with younger females!) Both are talented and skilled people who might appreciate earning extra income, working a flexible lifestyle, from the comfort of their own homes. The problem was not that qualified reps were in short supply. The marketplace is flooded with talented reps who no longer work full time. The problem was to identify and reach them.

Roberts tried every possible approach he could think of. He tried partnering with recruiting firms. He also tired posting job vacancy notices at Hello Work, Silver Work, Mamas Work and on social media. Finally, he found the key to solving his recruiting problem. Overnight, he recruited 50 reps from all different therapeutic areas. “It took me some time to find the secret sauce,” says Roberts, who offered no more on the subject.

He spent another month figuring out how to provide childcare support so that the kids do not cry when mom is on the phone. “There is no playbook in Japan to support people who telecommute from home,” he says adding, “We can figure it out. We just need to have an open mind.”

Robert says enTouch’s ‘medical partners’ are happy. Older ones continue to serve what they consider to be ‘their’ customers after retirement. They feel, “It’s not Takeda’s customer. It’s not Pfizer’s customer. It’s my customer,” he says. Younger female reps now recruit their female friends who also have children. Roberts says his company is helping the government achieve its revitalization plans by encouraging retirees and women back into Japan’s (shrinking) workforce.

In the future enTouch plans to start a Doctor to Doctor communications network. Partners can give doctors useful information about new drugs, but it’s not always convincing. Some doctors prefer to hear it from a more experienced clinician. The planned service should address that problem. The firm is also positioning itself to become the leading platform connecting doctors directly with their patients—should that day ever arise.

While Roberts was lucky to run a healthcare business in Japan before launching his startup, he believes anyone willing to work hard and to take risks can be a successful entrepreneur. He recommends that startup wannabes should not to let inexperience prevent them from doing so. “Just do it,” he says.

The above article is available to read in Japanese at Toyo Keizai.

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