Working for your Health

AFT Pharmaceuticals

“We are trying to target the areas that other people are not doing,” Founder and Managing Director Dr Hartley Atkinson explains. “We are trying to target areas where we think we can add something different or we can add some value.”

Dr Atkinson launched the small start-up in a room over his New Zealand garage with just $50,000 – and a powerful commitment to only produce products that “we believe in.” Today, a mere 15 years later, AFT Pharmaceuticals boasts out-licencing deals in 42 countries and annual Group Sales have just reached a whopping $55 million.

Throughout the company’s rise, the key to success has continued to be an unwavering devotion to patient care. “We are working to provide people with better products,” Dr Atkinson insists. “We want to develop and produce products that are better and aren’t available [in the current market]. We are definitely working to improve health.”

Drug development is a complex and expensive business, and unlike much of the competition, AFT Pharmaceuticals is a wholly private firm with limited funding. “We are not a multinational with bottomless pockets,” Dr Atkinson points out. “That is always the biggest challenge, just being able to do it without having a huge budget.” Believing in what it is doing is a powerful driving force, however, even if the company only has around $4 million to invest in R&D each year. “You just have to do it somehow,” Dr Atkinson says simply. “We saw various areas and opportunities that weren’t being covered. Really the only way to get the products we wanted was to develop them ourselves.”

A willingness to partner with other companies, both locally and abroad, has helped the team achieve its R&D goals. “We do find it quite useful to have partnerships to [carry out] some of our drug developments,” Dr Atkinson explains. For instance, AFT has been working with a pharmaceutical company in the EU to develop a new drug, and is also in negotiations with a firm in the US about a partnership deal for new drug development projects. “We have found that this model has worked well,” Dr Atkinson says. “[We will continue] trying to find partners with a common aim that we can work with and share responsibilities and costs.”

The team also maintains positive, and mutually beneficial, relationships with government. “We try to work with people rather than against them,” Dr Atkinson explains. “Wherever possible we try to work with the health authorities, with the government.”

Despite the funding challenges, AFT has managed to successfully develop an impressive portfolio of patented and niche pharmaceuticals for licencing in Australia and in the broader global market. Indeed, the full service company is well placed to make a serious splash on the pharmaceutical scene. The multitasking firm has the capacity to take a drug from a mere concept all the way through to placing it on the shelf. The team can develop the product, run the clinical trials, cover the regulatory and licencing requirements, and finally, market and sell the new pharmaceutical.

AFT’s talented R&D team is always on the lookout for ways to bring consumers better, more effective health care solutions. “Often we see things that we don’t think are ideal, so basically we try to develop treatments that are improvements,” Dr Atkinson reports. For example, “I have personally always had a concern about the use of opioids [in analgesics], so I wanted to develop an analgesic that avoided combination with an opioid.” The results have been marvellous – an over the counter painkiller without codeine that, in clinical trials, was more effective in controlling pain than the standard alternative. Maxigesic is currently only available in New Zealand, but “it is certainly going well and we want to launch it in Australia,” Dr Atkinson says.

When AFT does launch a product in Australia, the team works hard to get it approved by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). The effort is a reflection of the company’s underlying commitment to improving the public’s health. “Obviously, not everyone can afford to pay for a medicine,” Dr Atkinson points out, and the team wants as many people as possible to benefit from its products. “It is really nice to get products listed on the PBS because it makes it more available to patients who, in some cases, can’t afford these sorts of medicines.”

Several new AFT products have just been added to this important list. One is a recently developed, low dose oral contraceptive. “To date, on the Australian market, there weren’t any funded low dose oral contraceptives,” Dr Atkinson reports. “It is certainly a positive thing that such a product is funded and has been made available. We are really pleased.”

The team refuses to put a product on the shelf with which it is not 100 per cent behind. “The one thing that we’ve always said is that we don’t sell anything we don’t believe in,” Dr Atkinson explains. Indeed, the company is not afraid to make a stand – even if it opposes the industry giants. For example, AFT was at the forefront of the movement to remove pseudoephedrine from the market. “We were one the first companies… to move away from pseudoephedrine, which people convert into methamphetamine,” Dr Atkinson reports. It was a no brainer, really. “The downside is just so shocking,” he insists. “I just don’t think there is any excuse to use pseudoephedrine in any product.”

Not everyone agreed with this trail-blazing attitude, however. “I was somewhat outspoken and at odds with the general industry,” Dr Atkinson recalls. “But really, if we don’t believe in something – even if we think that as a business we could make money in it – we don’t do it. For us as a business that is really important.” Dr Atkinson believes that his background as a pharmacist and pharmacologist helped cement this commitment. “We do have that strong ethical training,” he explains. Those [beliefs] still come first and the business is overlaid on top of that. Being a health professional is still a pretty important driving and foundational feature of the business.”

The team’s strong ethical commitment has paid off – literally. “We’ve managed to build the business with no external capital, no external shareholders,” Dr Atkinson points out. “And we’ve managed to build it to a $55 million dollar business.” The next step is to continue the expansion. AFT has just launched new companies in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. “It’s fun starting up again from scratch,” Dr Atkinson remarks excitedly. “And it’s certainly a challenge when you’ve got nothing, but that is something that we are quite familiar with.”

AFT has a heavy focus on Asian expansion because, due to the closer geographic proximity, “It just makes a lot of sense,” Dr Atkinson says. “It is much, much simpler.” But the team isn’t holding back from expanding farther afield, either. The business just completed an out-licencing deal with “a large North American Pharma” that will cover around 30 countries, and AFT is also increasing its activities in the Middle East, the Balkans, Russia, and Mexico.

Going global takes dedication and a strong can-do attitude. “It certainly isn’t easy,” Dr Atkinson admits. “It doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of hard yards.” Negotiating is never simple in places where “the whole week it is minus 20 degrees and culturally it is very different, the language is different.” The key to success in these situations, Dr Atkinson says, is to respect these different cultures and ways of doing business. “Everywhere we’ve gone, we have tried to look at what the locals do,” Dr Atkinson reports. “Because you can’t go to another country and say, ‘in our country we do it this way therefore you must.’ You can’t do it that way.”

Armed with this open-minded attitude and a wealth of products that the team truly believes in, AFT is sure to find success around the globe. Indeed, the business is already expanding at an astounding rate. “People have seen that we can deliver,” Dr Atkinson explains. “That is why our business is growing.” The sky’s the limit, it seems. “A lot of things are really taking off.”

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October 20, 2018, 11:28 AM AEDT

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