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Unique opportunities at pharmaceutical companies treating rare diseases


Kenji Hasegawa was worried about his career. He contacted me out of the blue to ask whether we could meet. This came as somewhat of a surprise to me since it had been several years since we had been in touch. He visited our Nihonbashi office in Tokyo, late on cold and drizzly January evening after finishing a 13-hour day at work. We exchanged pleasantries. I was keen to understand the urgency behind our meeting since he had not been overly enthused about exploring opportunities outside his present company where he had worked since receiving his master’s degree in Pharmacy in 1995. At 45, he was now an Associate Director of Clinical Development at a large European pharmaceutical company. He was a one-company guy, and if I were a betting man, I would put my money on the possibility that he would retire at his present firm.I curiously asked what had happened and why he suddenly contacted me. He sheepishly explained that his friends were urging him to seriously consider changing jobs and to take on a new challenge; he felt he had gotten stale. In Japan, colleagues usually urge caution. He confessed that he had recently missed out on an early retirement program and was feeling like the years were slipping away.

I had previously encountered others in a similar situation in Japan, a country where three job changes in 20 years could be considered cavalier.. I went through the motions, asking him what he sort of job was looking for and expecting him to describe a big pharmaceutical company with a solid pipeline that may offer him a better salary. His response surprised me. He was looking to join a foreign company that had recently entered the Japanese market.  He explained that there was a tremendous opportunity for foreign companies with the market growing at around 3.5% annually. Further, while biopharmaceuticals account for around 30% of the overall global drug sales, the products only make up 10% of sales in Japan.

Kenji elaborated on this notion, citing companies like Alexion, which entered Japan 10 years ago and did exceeding well with stock options increasing by nearly 4000%. He explained that he was looking for a firm that would allow him to have a greater impact and was closer to the patients.

In recent years, Japan has seen considerable growth in the development and approval of drugs to treat unmet medical needs and rare diseases. Companies like Amicus Therapeutics (oral dose therapies for Fabry disease and other Lysosomal storage disorders) and Aegerion Pharmaceuticals (providing inhaled therapies for patients with serious lung diseases) are attracting significant interest in the Japanese job market.

Candidates like Kenji Hasegawa are aware that the Japanese government has taken measures to promote research in these areas, in addition to providing priority reviews and reducing the filing fees for drugs that receive the orphan drug designation. He does not wish to be left behind.

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