In Japan, opportunities abound for Swedish life science

Three life science-professionals share their experience and insights from the Japanese life science-sector and the many untapped opportunities for Swedish companies.

Japan has the third largest pharmaceuticals market and is home to countless pharma companies. With more than 123 millon inhabitants, the island country offers many opportunities for Swedish life science companies.

But entering a new market and finding the right partners is always challenging and Japan is considered one of the toughest countries to do business in.

In the following text, Marjo Puumalainen, International Director at SwedenBIO, Stina Lundgren, Head of Commercial Operations at Pelago Bioscience and Stefan Sandström, a founder of Biosector, share their experience after attending BioJapan 2023, the largest life science partnering conference in Japan.

Marjo Puumalainen, International Director, SwedenBIO

What was the purpose of SwedenBIO attending BioJapan?

“I have experienced that large pharmaceutical companies in Asia have a strong appetite for innovative drug discovery projects but have challenges to find small Swedish biotech companies. Given that SwedenBIO has recently published the Swedish drug discovery and development pipeline report 2023, mapping Swedish drug discovery and development projects, we have a great opportunity to present the Swedish pipeline to Japanese pharmaceutical scouts and invite them to Nordic Life Science Days to meet Swedish companies.”

SwedenBIO was selected for the EU-Japan biotech mission. What is your experience from the mission?

“The application for the EU-Japan mission was straightforward and the visit itself well organized. The mission covered tickets to the EU-Japan biotech-pharma partnering conference and BioJapan, a booth at BioJapan and some of the travel costs. They even translated our material to Japanese and had translators at the booth, which was important for increased visibility. I would recommend the mission, especially for first time comers; it’s an easy way to attend BioJapan and to get support to connect with local actors.”

How was the interest towards Swedish life science companies?

“Swedish biotech companies are poorly known in Japan, but it’s well known that Sweden is an innovative country with untapped business opportunities. I had several partnering meetings where companies showed a strong interest in learning about Swedish companies and our life science ecosystem. Japanese pharma scouts highly appreciated the detailed list of Swedish drug discovery projects, and I’m continuously working on connecting interested parties. The aim for the future is to continue building bridges between Japan and Sweden, organize a Japanese delegation to Nordic Life Science Days and use our local connections to support our members in expanding their business in the east.”

Stina Lundgren, Head of Commercial Operations, Pelago Bioscience

Pelago Bioscience was one of the Swedish biotech companies that attended BioJapan. They attended the Swedish Healthcare Seminar in Tokyo organized by BusinessSweden, had a booth and partnering meetings at BioJapan as well as company visits organized by BusinessSweden.

“The event gave us good insight into the Japanese drug discovery market. Majority of the participants at the conference focused on their late-stage assets which aren’t our main customers, however, as we’ve combined the conference with other networking events and roadshow, we found the trip and experience very valuable. Next time we would make sure we’ve even more of our booth material in Japanese and potentially work with local agents. Pelago has only started to explore the Japanese market and despite limited resources we have already managed to get Japanese customers,” says Stina Lundgren, Head of Commercial Operations at Pelago Bioscience.

Stefan Sandström, CEO Biosector

BusinessSweden and many other actors are supporting Swedish companies to expand in Japan. Stefan Sandström, a founder of Biosector, has been supporting European companies in their endevaours. Below, he shares his insights on the kind of challenges European companies he has worked with have faced when expanding their business in Japan.

Cultural differences:I cannot emphasize enough the contrast between Western and Japanese corporate culture. It’s not just about understanding the difference; it’s about embracing and respecting it as well as using it to your advantage. The major differences include: how to conduct presentations aligning expectations, discussing issues, pushing for a deal etc. Building solid relationships is a requirement and comes before doing business.

Local presence:The digital age hasn’t reduced the value (necessity) of a local representative in Japan. You need to have feet on the ground in some sense. Some travel regularly or work with a liaison, agent or other type of representative. Being physically present in a physical office in Japan will deeply influence trust-building and your business opportunities.

Overlooking Regulatory Differences:The regulatory landscape in Japan, especially in the life science sector, demands meticulous attention. Collaboration with local experts is often the key to seamless navigation.

Language barriers:While English might be a global business language, in Japan, it’s almost rare to find people who speak it well (the Bioindustry is a welcome exception as most companies are global on the get-go). For trade shows, you should bring translated materials. Always bring loads of business cards with a Japanese side (and possibly an English side).

Product/service localization:Beyond translations, understanding and tailoring your products, services and communication to local preferences can be a game-changer. Just the small detail that START-buttons are red… Positioning yourself optimally in the Japanese ecosystem is key to success, or engaging with a partner who is well-positioned.

Underfunded ventures:Enthusiasm, although crucial, isn’t a substitute for adequate funding and a strategic approach. Market entry to Japan requires thorough planning, a sustainable budget that allows for patience.

Lack of preparation:Venturing into Japan without comprehensive groundwork is a self-inflicted roadblock meaning that you will not return home with optimized results, feedback and relationships. Your level of preparation defines your success trajectory.