Home-grown ICM Pharma might not be a household name but its managing director reckons the drugmaker's products are probably in every household here.
It makes over 200 pharmaceutical products, both over-the-counter and generic, including cough and cold mixtures, antiseptics, medicated shampoos and dermatological creams. Bestsellers include Growell scalp lotion, Lactus Syrup laxative and Acne Clear cream.
"If you walk into any Guardian or Watsons store, you will see a large number of our products... We are very stealth; we are already in every household in Singapore," notes Dr Stuart Koe, 43, who took over as managing director in 2014.
He joined ICM Pharma in 2011, when his father Koe Khoon Poh, who founded the firm, was battling cancer. He took over the reins after his father died in 2014, but says it was not a role foisted on him. Following in dad's footsteps came with a "sense of destiny".
The firm, whose premises span 50,000 sq ft at an industrial park in Kallang Place, employs 130 people.
Dr Koe, who holds a doctorate of pharmacy from the University of Minnesota, told The Straits Times that the profession runs in the family. One aunt is also a pharmacist, while another married one.
"I think growing up around all that science, it was a very natural decision for me to go to pharmacy school... and my dad did say it was the only way he would pay for my overseas education," he recalls.
As a teenager, he would help out at the factory during school holidays - sweeping floors and packing goods - but learning was not confined to handling small tasks.
"My dad would always analyse products in the market, and explain the science behind the drugs or cosmetics. He would back-engineer it and say, 'Oh, I can make that'. It was from both a pharmacist's and a manufacturer's point of view."
It is this same spirit of innovation and drive to improve that Dr Koe is infusing into ICM Pharma. Since he joined, turnover has grown, rising about 30 per cent to $16 million in its 2015 fiscal year. Production capacity has increased threefold, after efforts to standardise work processes and a $2 million investment in automation and larger-capacity equipment.
Singapore accounts for about 90 per cent of the firm's business, with the remainder made up of exports to Hong Kong, Brunei, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Papua New Guinea. It exports mainly Growell scalp lotion and lice care treatments.
Dr Koe said there is considerable export potential over the next two to three years, particularly in the ASEAN region.
"One reason we have not focused on exports is the regulatory hurdles that pharma companies have to face," he notes. "We have to register our products... We do plan to export to neighbouring countries and have started the registration process."
ICM Pharma is venturing into the biologic medicines segment as well, with a €5.25 million (S$7.9 million) investment in Dutch firm Alloksys Life Sciences, to support Phase 3 clinical study trials of the Rescap drug. Rescap - short for RESCuing Alkaline Phosphatase - can be used to prevent and treat complications of major surgery.
Dr Koe says: "For example, when patients go to surgery, they are already weakened. There's a possibility that they could get kidney failure, cardiac failure, respiratory failure. They go into 'shock'. Rescap can prevent that from happening."
Under the agreement with Alloksys, ICM Pharma will have exclusive manufacturing and marketing rights for the drug to be used in cardiothoracic surgery, or procedures involving the heart and lungs, for the Asia-Pacific.
The broad application potential of Rescap - which could also include treating irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and neuro-degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's - was what prompted ICM Pharma's investment.
Dr Koe says: "There is enormous potential to help so many different kinds of patients and possibly save so many lives. This could be a blockbuster drug by pharma industry standards."
Founded in 1970, under the name Woods International, the company started out as a trader of veterinary products in Singapore and Malaysia. Over the years, ICM Pharma has emerged as one of the largest home-grown pharmaceutical companies here.
ICM Pharma is not Dr Koe's first experience in running a business. He exercised his entrepreneurial instincts in 2000 when he founded Internet start-up Fridae.com, Asia's leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) news and social networking site.
Dr Koe left Fridae.com in 2011, and it was later sold to a media company in the United States.
"Running a start-up where you have to beg, borrow and steal every cent, and you have to survive the Sars crisis, the global financial crisis... That was boot camp," he says. "Moving into a company where there are reserves, very strong business fundamentals, good cash flow, this was a cakewalk."
He is also active in HIV advocacy and research, spurred by his time at San Francisco General Hospital, where he did a clinical internship stint at an Aids ward in the early 1990s.
"Working alongside the tireless clinicians there and getting to know many of the pioneering Aids activists left an indelible mark, inspiring me to specialise in the field."
This article was first published on August 1, 2016.
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