It’s all about quality
The market was not developed, skill workforce was not in abundance in the country and finance was tight, but Abdul Muktadir was unfazed when he decided to set up a pharmaceutical company two decades ago.
His courage stemmed from the growth potential of the industry in line with an economy ready to embark on higher GDP growth and the determination to deliver high-quality medicines that are available in developed markets but not in Bangladesh.
"Uniqueness and quality are key to success for entrepreneurs. These have been the two pillars of our success," said Muktadir, managing director and chairman of Incepta.
Set up in 1999, Incepta Pharmaceuticals became the second-largest drug-maker in Bangladesh in just eight years, a rare feat for a company in a small market with many competing companies.
"Doctors and healthcare providers and consumers welcomed the company from the very beginning. We have always focused on the products that are important for the people but are not available in the market. This helped us grow steadily."
The annual turnover for the company stood at Tk 2,755 crore.
So far, Incepta has rolled out about 175 new generic drugs, which were not included in the portfolio of other drug-makers.
The company's factory and products were all designed in the model of international standard.
"We have done everything possible to maintain product quality at global standard," Muktadir said.
"When we found that some of our products were grabbing the market very fast, we analysed the reason and found that its quality is far better than competitors."
For instance, some of its products are being sold around 4 lakh units per month, way higher than 10,000 to 11,000 units of sales clocked by its nearest competitors.
In the late 1990s, Bangladesh's economy started to post growth of more than 5 per cent. This led Muktadir, then the chief operating officer of Beximco Pharmaceuticals, to be convinced about the potential of more companies.
Subsequently, he decided to form a company and talked to many others to forge a partnership. In the end, the best match came from Impress Group, which has businesses in garments and media.
Entrepreneurs of Impress Group were his friends from his time at the University of Dhaka where he studied pharmacy.
"So, before launching the venture, I felt better and comfortable with them," Muktadir said.
According to the entrepreneur, the main hurdle faced by entrepreneurs is accommodating the right people in the right place.
"When a company begins its journey, the hurdle gets even tougher because efficient people don't want to join a new company."
Incepta faced the same difficulty. It received a blow when two of its top officials, who were heading up the production and marketing teams, were hired by competitors.
"We were in a growing position, but suddenly things became very difficult."
Muktadir and his wife Hasneen Muktadir doubled down their efforts. He went to expand the market share while his wife worked both as a pharmacist in the factory and a manager in the head office to put the company on a firm footing.
She took care of the whole business strongly with daily long hours of work for eight or nine months.
"Family support is crucial for an entrepreneur," Muktadir said.
Mobilising funds were not easy for Incepta as well. It received sufficient bank loans after three years of its successful journey and becoming a familiar name in the pharmaceutical fraternity.
National Bank was the first lender to have extended loans to it thanks to the involvement of Impress Group. Mutual Trust Bank and HSBC followed suit.
"When we became a good borrower, others came to us," Muktadir said. Since then, the company has had no problems in securing bank loans.
Muktadir also talked about the challenges Bangladesh's pharmaceuticals industry is going to face in the coming days.
The 2015 decision on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights of the World Trade Organisation says a least-developed country will no longer enjoy the patent waiver if it ceases to be an LDC prior to the expiry of the transition period.
This means that Bangladesh will not benefit from the pharmaceutical waiver once it graduates out of the LDC group in 2024, although the waiver has been granted until 2032.
"New products will no longer be available at a lower cost because of the patent protection," Muktadir said.
For instance, people in Bangladesh buy the medicines to treat Hepatitis C spending just $5-7, but it may cost them $1,000.
"We will talk to the government to register all new products so that we can supply the medicines at a lower cost for at least the next five to six years."
"But people will have to pay higher prices for the new medicines after five to six years. By this time, peoples' income will grow, so most people will be able to afford it."
If local drug companies ramp up production facilities to produce medicines based on their research, they will be able to supply medicines at a lower cost.
"Our export will not be affected as we ship only generic medicines," he said.
Muktadir sought the government's assistance to help the industry reach its potential.
When it comes to foreign currency rules and trade policy, the country is much conservative. "We face challenges during international trade."
He said scientific information is regularly updated by international organisations. "We have to buy books on a regular basis to remain updated."
The technical guidelines are valued at $600 to $1,200 and are purchased using credit cards. But, the Bangladesh Bank has ordered that one can't spend more than $300 to buy books online in a single transaction.
"So, we need to take several approvals to buy the books," said Muktadir, who studied industrial pharmacy at the Long Island University in the US.
He called for policy support on import of solvents, acids, alkali and other reagents to grow the API industry.
"We will certainly set up a robust API industry."
The business of pharmaceutical companies fell by 30 to 35 per cent because of the coronavirus pandemic. The major blow came during the April-June period, the peak of the pandemic in Bangladesh.
"People were confined to homes and did not visit doctors. Our sales were largely limited to fever, cold and sanitisation-related products."
Employees gave unprecedented support during the pandemic, so Bangladesh did not see any disruption in drug supply, Muktadir said.
"We continued to export during the pandemic that brightened our reputation. We hope we will bounce back once the pandemic is over."
Muktadir is bullish about the potential of the industry.
There is no pharmaceutical industry in most of the economies that are at the similar stage of development like in Bangladesh. Some developed countries are dependent on imported drugs.
"We will continue our export after meeting the local demand. So, the industry will continue to grow in the foreseeable period. For us, the sky is the limit."
The pharmaceutical industry is based on skill and knowledge. In the last 30 years, many pharmacists, chemists, engineers and doctors have joined the industry and have contributed with their skills.
"Our industry is now strengthening its capacities to make active pharmaceutical ingredients. As we are making basic raw materials along with final products, we will be able to compete with other countries."
Incepta exports medicines to 67 countries and employs about 10,000 people.