The magic pill

Hartley_HiRes_PortraitAfter being made redundant from Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, pharmacologist Dr Hartley Atkinson started his own pharmaceutical company from his beachside suburb home in Auckland. In 2005 the company started operating in Australia, and opened its local HQ on Sydney’s north shore in 2010. Now, 15 years after starting, the minnow is successfully taking on the multinationals in the international market. It boasts licensing deals in 42 countries and is on track for sales of AU$35 million-plus this year. “We only produce products we believe in,” says Dr Atkinson. These include a number of innovative pain and allergy drugs, and soon a nasal drug-delivery device that promises to be almost 100 per cent effective.

TRADE EXPRESS: How did it all start?

We began life with start-up capital of just NZ$50,000, my redundancy pay-out from Roche, in a room off my garage. It’s not the normal way for a pharmaceutical company to start out, but that’s how we did it.

I originally did a pharmacy degree at Otago University but decided counting tablets was not my thing, so I did a doctorate in pharmacology, doing research at Christchurch Hospital before moving to Roche, in Switzerland. I became medical director there, and then, later, sales director, which is an unusual combination. It was very good training. A lot of it rubbed off on me. Swiss companies, like Roche, operate in a small country without a lot of resources, which makes them  very smart and innovative. They’re very precise; they dot their ‘i’s’ and cross their ‘t’s’.

TRADE EXPRESS: Where does AFT Pharmaceuticals fit into the market, given most pharmaceutical companies are international giants?

In New Zealand, we are the number one locally-owned pharmaceutical company. But we now have more sales in Australia than in New Zealand. We have been in Australia since 2005, and we also have licensing agreements in over 40 countries. We try to do things a bit differently from our large multinational competitors, and a lot of our successful products have come about because we have managed to fit where others aren’t operating.

One of our main products is Maxigesic. Maxigesic combines paracetamol with ibroprufen, and it is a very synergistic combination – you add one plus one and get three instead of two, in terms of effect, which means it is a very effective pain reliever.

We also have a very nice anti-bacterial topical cream called Crystaderm. It uses hydrogen peroxide and kills both gram negative and gram positive bacteria, which most topical anti-bacterials don’t do. We also have another product, Maxiclear, which is pretty big too. It’s a hayfever treatment which includes an anti-histamine and a decongestant.

TRADE EXPRESS: You seem to have chosen to specialise in pain and allergy relief?

We’re the leading anti-histamine company in New Zealand, in terms of sales. But we’re also currently researching a very sophisticated (nasal) drug delivery device. It goes into clinical trial this year. Its delivery rate is 10 times better than that of the German gold standard device. With nasal spray pumps, only about half a percent of the drug gets into the sinuses. The German device delivers four percent. Ours will deliver 96 percent. It will have huge potential all around the world.

TRADE EXPRESS: What are the company’s strengths?

We’re always keen to give things a go, and we’re honest. People here don’t bury their mistakes; we examine them carefully. People don’t get punished for making them either. We have an open sort of culture. We also use small teams of four or five to work on projects. Big companies often have big teams, and whenever you have too many people working on something, it puts a stop to it.

TRADE EXPRESS: You obviously use freight a lot in your business. What role has DHL played in your company’s success?

Freight is very important to us nowadays because the business is pretty global, even in terms of our R&D. Then there’s our actual shipment of product – we’re shipping to lots of different countries. If you don’t notice it [freight] then it’s working, which means your logistics are good. You only notice it when there is a problem. We’ve found DHL has worked very well for us.

AFT Pharmaceuticals website

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