SME Spotlight

Ocean Health sees R&D as growth booster

Mr Lim (far left) with former Health Promotion Board CEO Mr Lam. Mr Lim says Mr Lam's appointment as Ocean Health chief exec in May was "a clear signal of our intention not to be just another supplement company". Mr Lim wants the firm to be the flag-
Mr Lim (left) with former Health Promotion Board CEO Mr Lam. Mr Lim says Mr Lam's appointment as Ocean Health chief exec in May was "a clear signal of our intention not to be just another supplement company". Mr Lim wants the firm to be the flag-bearer for Singapore in the field of health products.ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN

It can be overwhelming when you go into a pharmacy to buy a bottle of supplements and are faced with such a wide variety, all claiming to help with all sorts of health issues. Home-grown supplement company Ocean Health aims to stand out from the crowd through research and innovation. In the third of a four-part series on innovative healthcare companies, Yasmine Yahya speaks to chief executive Lam Pin Woon, managing director Lim See Wah and senior marketing executive Vivien Kueh to find out how this has helped Ocean Health grow.

Q Ocean Health was acquired by the Hyphens Group in January this year. How has that changed the game for the company?

Mr Lim: Hyphens is a pharmaceutical group with a history and track record of collaborating with A*Star and with support from Spring Singapore. As a group, Hyphens is in close contact with the market and with doctors to understand market challenges, issues and gaps.

And that's how we can go to research institutes and say: "We think some of these problems can be solved with technologies you may have."

For example, Hyphens is working with the Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences at A*Star on a research collaboration and from there, we are able to combine our commercial insights with its R&D and come up with an innovative solution.

Similar collaborations are taking place between Ocean Health and research institutions in Singapore. Spring has been very helpful and supportive in taking us to these institutes and centres of innovation.

After I took over Ocean Health in January, I decided to invite Pin Woon to come on board in May, and that, too, was a clear signal of our intention not to be just another supplement company.

Pin Woon was the CEO of the Health Promotion Board for six years, from 2005 to 2010, and is an adjunct associate professor at the Department of Pharmacy at the National University of Singapore.

Q How do you feel Ocean Health stands out from the crowd?

Mr Lam: One thing we practise is to verify the efficacy of our products.

Take our omega-3 supplement, for example. Everyone says omega-3 is good for your health but I believe we're the only company in Singapore to have conducted a study to see the effects of our omega-3 supplement on consumers.

We had 30 subjects take one omega-3 pill a day for 30 days and we sent their blood samples before and after to a lab in the United States and they showed a marked increase in levels of Omega-3 in their bodies. So we put real science behind our products.

When we develop products, we also look at the major needs of the population. We don't just look at what would sell, like weight-loss pills.

We take a scan of the local population - for example, we have an ageing society and many Singaporeans have hectic lifestyles. So two key consequences of these trends are diabetes and dementia. And so we are developing products to target these specific problems. They are still in the works.

Being a home-grown company, we are more attuned to population needs, while many other brands in Singapore are imported. We have to formulate our own products for our own market.

Q How do you innovate beyond research and studies?

Ms Kueh: We recently launched a product called Glucosamine 750+ that combines glucosamine, calcium and curcumin to help prevent joint deterioration, and this formula is unique to the market.

There are a lot of products out there to address issues related to the joints in your body. But they are mostly either pure glucosamine or glucosamine and calcium. Separately, there are supplements containing curcumin to address inflammation of the joints.

Nobody has ever put them all together into one supplement.

Previous joint supplements in the market were mainly targeted to address particular conditions commonly faced by the elderly, so that could be one reason why nobody has come up with this combination before.

But we saw that aside from treating patients with existing conditions, there was a gap in the market with regard to helping people prevent such conditions from occurring.

A major group that is missing out on this are working adults. They are active now - they go to work, look after their kids, exercise - all of which place a strain on their joints. But often, it is too late when they notice it.

So even market targeting itself can be innovative. We do a lot of outreach and engagement activities and through these events, we have realised that younger people need certain supplements but may not know it.

Based on this knowledge, we decided to target this crowd and from there, we came up with this formula that suits them. Mr Lim: This is an example of how innovation works. Innovation is not invention. If you ask me: "Can you discover a new molecule or a new cure for a certain condition?" I would tell you: "That's not within our scope."

Innovation is different. It starts from identifying the problem and then the possible solutions.

If you are looking at these individual components - glucosamine, calcium and curcumin - they have always been there. But nobody has ever put them together into one supplement. Innovation is about having insight and linking things together.

Q What are your growth plans?

Mr Lim: We feel very strongly that if Singapore wants to develop a strong external economy and help local companies internationalise, one area that we can do well in is health products, where the trust level has to be high.

The Singapore brand has a good trust level internationally and yet, at this moment, we don't really have a lot of companies that are flying the Singapore flag in this area. So it's definitely my intention to make sure that Ocean Health is a flag-bearer for Singapore internationally.

Right now, most of our sales are in Singapore and that's where we see an opportunity, because today, Hyphens is established regionally - we have a presence in six countries in the region. We have offices and people on the ground.

So how can Ocean Health regionalise? We are doing work in terms of product registration in Malaysia and Vietnam. We are trying to see how we can start in Indonesia too. Mr Lam: We have 60 staff in Singapore. As we expand beyond Singapore, we will add more R&D staff to help us develop more products.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2016, with the headline 'Ocean Health sees R&D as growth booster '. Print Edition | Subscribe