Bitter pill turns into best medicine

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Kiwi pharmacologist Hartley Atkinson says the success of his company, AFT Pharmaceuticals, comes down to having good products such as Maxigesic. Photo / Ted Baghurst
Kiwi pharmacologist Hartley Atkinson says the success of his company, AFT Pharmaceuticals, comes down to having good products such as Maxigesic. Photo / Ted Baghurst

Three months before his second daughter was born, Dr Hartley Atkinson was laid off.

Not the best of times, but the former medical director at Swiss healthcare company Roche wasn't going to let a redundancy get in the way of a fulfilling career.

With $50,000 in start-up capital, the pharmacologist set up his own company from a spare room off his garage. Fifteen years on, AFT Pharmaceuticals is one of New Zealand's most successful private pharmaceutical companies, with sales to the tune of $42 million.

In New Zealand AFT is best known for inventing Maxigesic, the first painkiller in the world to combine paracetamol and ibuprofen. If Atkinson looks familiar, it's because he's the laidback guy in his own commercials, apologising for his ads not being flash.

The company's success isn't rocket science, he says; it comes down to having good products.

"There are areas that the big pharmaceutical companies miss or don't look at, and small guys like us, who are pretty close to the market, see opportunities in things that haven't been done."

One of those opportunities the company is developing is a drug delivery device known as an ultrasonic mesh nebuliser. Invented in Russia, the groundbreaking contraption allows a drug to be administered intra-Nasally, rather than by injection. That could make visits to the doctor a little less painful for kids, as well as for those afraid of needles. It also means outpatients will have access to quick nausea relief, something traditionally administered by injection.

AFT also has an "orphan" company, which supplies lower-cost drugs for rare diseases, such as interstitial pulmonary fibrosis, where the lungs have trouble expanding. Historically, big drug companies have not catered for rare disease, says Atkinson, although it is becoming a new growth area, particularly in parts of Asia, where the company supplies poorer territories at a lower cost.

"There is business to be had but also we like the idea of it because it's really helping people. We have a strong belief that we don't sell anything we don't believe in."

Elsewhere, AFT, which specialises in pain and allergy relief and has operations in New Zealand and Australia, is working on pharmacy deals in 40 countries. In particular it is making inroads into Southeast Asia and has an office in Kuala Lumpur.

These are huge achievements when you consider AFT is competing with bigger international conglomerates such as GlaxoSmithKline, (which manufactures Panadol) and Reckitt Benckiser (Nurofen).

Convincing the New Zealand public to trust a new brand of painkiller was one of many challenges the company faced when it launched Maxigesic.

The combination of the two drugs was developed to a specific ratio, says Atkinson, so they work together to give the most benefit.

"Sometimes people almost don't believe that someone can develop something good here. They think it's got to be developed in America or invented in Britain, when really we do have the ability here to do good research work.

"We hire a lot of highly qualified people. We've just hired a pharmacist, and what stuck most with me was it was a really close choice between a pharmacist and PhD student, and the student said to me, 'I really want a job, otherwise I'll have to get a job overseas.'

"They just missed out by a whisker but to me it was quite sad. I couldn't give them both a job.

"The argument is there could be more jobs, and the more the better, so the more people do innovative things means we're not just sending unprocessed logs off the wharf. It's good for New Zealand long-term."

Meanwhile, AFT has exploited the need for products with multiple benefits. Maxiclear Hayfever and Sinus was developed after studies showed 84 per cent of people who suffered from hayfever also had a runny or blocked nose. "A standard non-sedating antihistamine doesn't have an effect on Nasal congestion so it made sense to have drug that could treat both problems."

As well as brands such as Maxigesic and Maxiclear Cold and Flu Relief, AFT distributes a raft of patented pain and allergy relief products, plus lines from international companies. AFT is also continually developing new drugs for the market. It also supplies a range of prescription drugs to pharmacies and a lower-price version to hospitals.

Atkinson studied pharmacy and pharmacology, (a branch of medicine concerned with the study of drug action), and completed a doctorate in pharmacology, focusing on drug distribution through human milk.

"The question mums would ask when I worked at the hospital was, if I take this drug, can I breastfeed my baby?"

From there he worked for Roche, where he came to appreciate the advantages of a company from a small, outward-looking nation which dealt with lots of different cultures. He progressed through four jobs there, including medical director and sales and marketing director.

"One of my bosses said when I first started that it's almost easier to get technical training, then learn the business side of things than the other way around. It is really valuable understanding the technical details because that's what they judge you on overseas. If you don't know what you're talking about technically, you wouldn't be taken as seriously."

He suspects his head for business comes from his grandfather, who he says was high up in the British milling industry. But he now fears for graduates for whom there simply aren't enough jobs. Then again, good things can come from nothing. He doubts his own entrepreneurial spirit would have been aroused had he not been made redundant.

"It's one of those things. You can either take it as a negative or a positive when things like that happen. Sometimes they're opportunities, aren't they? They give you a good kick in the pants and an opportunity to change direction. In many ways it was the best thing that ever happened to me."

- NZ Herald

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