Eyes are exposed to harsh environments due to modern lifestyle such as over-use of PCs and smartphones in air-conditioned rooms. The number of Japanese dry eye patients is estimated at more than 20 million according to the Japanese Ophthalmological Society.
The market size for contact lenses in Japan is around 173 billion yen according to the over-the-counter retail price of GfK LifeStyle Tracking from May 2014~April 2015.
Meanwhile, the market share of 1DD (one-day disposable) contact lenses is about 53% of the total market for soft contact lens according to GfK.
A survey of contact-lens users was conducted by Alcon Japan this year and the results showed that nearly 70% of contact-lens users who felt discomfort in an office even in summer claimed dryness of eyes. A group company of Novartis, Alcon is one of the world’s leading eye care companies and has had a market presence in Japan for about 40 years.
Heading up Alcon Japan’s operations since last October is Jim Murphy, President and Representative Director. Murphy received his B.S. in Business Administration from The University of Vermont and received a Master of International Management from The University of Denver. He began his career at Alcon in 1995 as a surgical equipment manager in Boston. Since then, he has held positions of increasing responsibility, including serving as Alcon’s director of regional marketing for Asia/Far East, where he was responsible for building and executing Alcon’s global marketing operations in this rapidly growing region in the world.
Japan Today visits Murphy at the Alcon Japan office in Toranomon to hear more about the eye care business.
How important is the Japanese market for Alcon?
Japan is our second largest market outside the U.S. Alcon has been in Japan for about 40 years. We came here first with our surgical products, so we are very well known among eye care professionals.
What are your main business lines?
We have three business units. One is surgical, which are medical devices for use in cataract and back-of-the eye surgery. Then we have pharmaceuticals for glaucoma, allergies and infections. And the third is our contact lens franchise. Basically, you’ll find us in everything to do with eye care, except for spectacles. The surgical unit is our biggest revenue earner. It’s where we are an innovator especially in the area of cataracts.
Since Japan is such a mature market, what is your strategy for growing the business?
Our strategy is to grow the business through innovation. Alcon has always invested in innovation of products. We spend more money than any other eye care company in the world with the exception of the National Eye Institute in the U.S. We believe in R&D and we do partnerships with universities to come up with new ideas to advance the treatment of eye care in developed and underdeveloped countries as well.
How about in Japan?
In Japan, the market is big enough for us to do our own clinical work at Japanese universities with Japanese patients. On the surgical side of our business, we provide opportunities for doctors to get hands on experience using equipment in our wet lab, using artificial eyes. Our labs are often used 6-7 days a week.
Does it take a long time for products approved in the U.S., for example, to get approved in Japan?
The timelines are based on the amount of clinical work you have to do to support registration of a new product. With the national health insurance plan in Japan, it is not just a matter of bringing in a new product, even if it has been approved overseas. The Japanese regulatory process is very safety and health conscious, so they want extensive studies on safety, health and efficacy.
What are some of your most recent innovations?
The Dailies Total1® is a daily disposable contact lens, which contributes to a reduction of dryness feeling. Thus far, the demand has been for a lens that has two aspects. One is that you want your lens to be able to breathe so you get oxygen to your eyes wearing this piece of plastic on your eye all day. In order to do that, we developed a product made of a material called silicone hydrogel. Because silicone repels water, the challenge has always been to make a material breathable and that will have oxygen permeability, but you also want it to be wet.
With Dailies Total1, Alcon scientists took on this challenge of high water content, which is wetness and oxygen with a process where they can high-scale manufacture a lens that has high breathability. The core of the lens is made up primarily of silicone, only 33% water at the core. The entire outside of the lens, the periphery of the lens, is encapsulated in a water gel-type substance. This is the first time we have been able to figure out chemically how to make it happen.
How has the response been?
The response has been phenomenal since we launched it last October. We are finding that people are able to tolerate this lens very successfully all day. Even people who stopped wearing contact lenses, are now able to start wearing them again. It is sold at a premium price in the market. You can wear this lens for 220 to 260 yen a day. Most people will look at the price for an entire year and that sounds like a lot of money but what value can you place on your vision?
How big a problem is dry eye syndrome in Japan?
A survey of contact-lens users by Alcon Japan revealed that nearly 70% of office workers experience “dryness of eyes” even in summer. Moreover, 70% of them take no measures although they felt that eye dryness decrease their productivity and operational efficiency. Also, 40% of respondents took some measures against eye dryness and 90% of them use eye drops. Only 10% of them consulted with ophthalmologists. The people who changed contact lenses account for only 5% of them. The survey result clearly showed respondents lack interest in consultation with ophthalmologists and switching contact lenses. Nearly 40% of respondents have even thought that they wanted to quit the use of contact lens due to eye dryness which tells eye dryness is the significant issue for contact lens users.
On the other hand, 70% of respondents who would like to switch to contact lenses which can mitigate eye dryness if there are, indicating their high willingness to resolve dryness of eyes. I think Japan has been very progressive in looking at dry eye as a disease as well as in treatment. It’s recognized more in Japan, so the rate may be higher compared to other countries.
What would you say are some unique characteristics of the Japanese market in your industry?
First and foremost, in Japan, are the patient’s safety and health. That is paramount. Quality is another factor. Japan keeps companies on their toes and focused not just when you launch a product but the continuity of after-sales service once it is in the market. Expectations are higher here than in other markets.
What trends do you see in Japan?
Unfortunately, the contact lens industry has been commoditized to a certain extent. You should always talk to your eye care professional before deciding on a contact lens. In Japan, you can buy contact lenses without a prescription on the Internet and that is not good for your eyes. In particular, selling colored contact lenses to children without professional consultation has risks…and it is growing because it has become less controlled.
How do you keep up with the latest developments?
Having been in the business for 20 years, I understand the business. In Japan, we work with top universities and doctors. I don’t speak Japanese but I like to tell doctors I speak “ophthalmology.”
Tell us about your team.
We have over 1,000 staff throughout Japan in 22 regional offices. We invest a lot in training and developing our sales staff so they become experts on the products and eye diseases.
What is a typical day for you?
I show up here about 7 a.m. I have a lot of meetings and conference calls with HQ in Fort Worth, Texas. The best part of the job is meeting with doctors. I have been wearing contact lenses for 40 years, so I am very passionate about eye care. I am hands on and also a team player. You are only as good as your team. Mine is a collaborative leadership style. I like to make sure all the voices of our employees are being heard.
How do you like to relax?
My wife and I like to travel. There is so much to see and do in Tokyo. I also try to encourage a work/life balance among the staff. We have flexible work hours and we hold team-building events and family days.© Japan Today