From The Editor | June 12, 2017

Japan And The Art Of Supply-Chain Specialization


By Louis Garguilo, Chief Editor, Outsourced Pharma

Japan And The Art Of Supply-Chain Specialization

So you say you’re a specialist.

And that’s probably a good thing. Maybe you specialize in technologies for advanced spray drying of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs). Or in the ability to successfully purify and scale up specific strains of biological material. Perhaps you're known as the best at developing certain antibody-drug conjugate (ADC) components, or the handling of a specific class of highly potent compound chemistries.

But consider this paradox:  

The best “specialists” are also solid “generalists.”

I’m reminded of this contrarian concept by a recent visit to Japan, where I originally learned it years ago; and the ongoing debate at Outsourced Pharma conferences regarding successful partnerships in the external supply chain.   

Parable Of The Specialist

A long, long time ago (that’s how Japanese tales start), a business development professional was attempting to penetrate the Japan Pharma market for his U.S.-based service provider. For each business trip to Japan, he’d select scientists or engineers to join him – his specialists.

The obvious way to do this was to select the scientist or engineer most knowledgeable in a particular science or technology that one or more of the Japan Pharma companies was most interested in during each trip.

Often, though, that didn’t work out so well. The specialists were unable – they lacked the confidence – to field even general questions on other capabilities or parts of the company. How the other supply-chain pieces fit together internally, or how they would fit with the customers’ organizational philosophy, couldn’t be addressed adequately, if at all. This had a negative impact on the Japanese Pharma professionals looking for partnerships.

The business development professional began to recognize that the best specialists to have in meetings where those individuals who had learned how to connect the “supply-chain dots,” internally and externally. Meetings progressed further with those we could speak confidently and intelligently, if even generally, about what made up the larger drug development and manufacturing continuum. Sales started to come in.

The business development professional started to notice something else. A number of his specialists, now emboldened by their Japan experience and enriched by a growing interest and understanding of the component parts around their core specialty, began moving into manager roles. And the Japan Pharma clients grew confident enough to increase projects with the U.S.-based service provider. Now partnerships started to form.

Great for the service provider, but in fact no small potatoes for the Japan Pharma companies themselves. They now gained exposure to international partners, U.S.-based capacity, and at times new technologies … and yes, exposure to a different set of top-notch specialists.

Here’s the moral of our tale: Yes, individuals must focus on their specialty, and company leaders on their specific roles within the supply chain. But neither should ever be so regimented as to remain uneducated on how the supply-chain dots connect to benefit the pharma and bio companies that make up our global industry. Part of any individual’s or group’s “specialty” should include the goal of being the best at figuring out how all the other specialties connect.

Our second story illustrates how this might be accomplished at a drug owner.

Parable Of The “Master” Of All Trades

Well known throughout the world is the idea of “Jack of all trades, master of none.” This usually surfaces as a business culture or industry goes through a cycle of focusing on and hiring key “specialists” for the new technologies and innovations of the time, which then circles to the placing of importance on having more well-rounded individuals. (At universities, it’s billed as the sciences versus the humanities debate.)

Many years ago, our business development professional from the parable above consummated a service deal with “Tanaka” at a Japan Pharma. Tanaka had been working at the pharma company for many years, and was the director of chemical development, his field of specialty. More projects followed, but one day Tanaka introduced a new director of chemical development; he was being reassigned elsewhere in the company – to discovery chemistry.

After some time had elapsed, Tanaka contacted the business professional to inform him he was now the head of a large group in their medicinal chemistry organization. This was not his “specialty,” and he’d like some help. Thus started a med-chem relationship.

Next, Tanaka was assigned to the Pharma’s home office and a variety of CMC management roles. The relationship with the U.S.-based service provider continued to grow.

Interestingly, as each new area of partnership was established, the other established areas seemed to proceed more smoothly: The parts knew the other parts, and the all was in tune with the whole.

Of course this “parable” isn’t unique, and perhaps doesn’t rise to a final “moral of the story.” But it is instructive as we practice the art of drug development and manufacturing within today’s supply chains, specifically in two regards.

First, even the most highly specialized individuals should be provided with experiences in many areas of the elongated supply chain. And this is not only for those on a managerial track. Frontline scientists and engineers can ply their trade better if they know where they fit in – and they can positively impact the organization on a wider scale.

Second for our understanding is this: What Tanaka actually became a “specialist” in was his entire organization. (And our business professional in his.) Perhaps more so today specifically because we are in a certain cycle of specialists and new technologies, we should be reminded that our industry needs the type of professional who continues to learn about specific areas by also understanding better the entire continuum in which he or she works.

As well as for larger organizations, this may be particularly helpful to smaller biotechs and specialty pharma, whose business models can include near full outsourcing, and future out-licensing of products: You, too, need to understand what went before, what goes on in tandem, and what comes next to enhance chances of success. No one or no organization today can operate in a vacuum of specialization, and succeed.