Sharing the benefits of health tech innovation
A Q&A with Wellesta on its new partnership with Abdul Latif Jameel Health
Wellesta is a Singapore-headquartered healthcare marketing and distribution company that operates across India and South-East Asia & partnering in MENA.
It works with partners in the sector to supply and promote new healthcare products, services and solutions to communities in these regions, helping to improve access to high quality healthcare.
This collaboration will see Wellesta supporting Abdul Latif Jameel Health in introducing the device to the Indian market and capitalizing on its potential to take ultrasound scanning out of the hospitals and into the communities where it is most needed.
We spoke to Milan Paleja, Chairman and Managing Director of Wellesta, about the partnership and what it could mean for patients in the target market.
Milan, Wellesta is a relatively young company. Can you tell us about its background and how you came to establish the business?
MP: I’m a Finance Professional by training, but I’ve worked in the healthcare sector for over 36 years, largely at Novartis, where I started off as an intern. As my career progressed, I took on increasingly senior roles in India, Singapore, South Africa, North Africa, MENA , APAC, in business areas of pharmaceuticals and consumer health. My roles were in finance as CFO, and also as a CEO and President of the Country. I spent a lot of time travelling for business in across countries in the APAC and MENA regions, and I noticed that there was a disconnect between the big global pharma companies, and their end customers/consumer.
I saw an opportunity to bridge that gap, to help these multinational healthcare companies to better meet the needs of patients, understand the local context, and get their products to market.
By 2019, I was running Novartis in India – and at around 55 years old at the time, I had the opportunity to take early retirement. I thought this was the right time for me to give wings to my dream to cater to healthcare needs of the mass population where access to quality and right priced products would be the primary objective. I used my savings and retirement fund to start Wellesta, which was formally established in June 2019.
My learning in Novartis, and other businesses, over many years, and from many senior leaders helped me to set up and manage Wellesta. I will always be grateful to Novartis and my mentors there who imparted knowledge which will always be highly appreciated.
What is the vision for Wellesta? How is it positioned in the market?
MP: We focus on three main verticals: the first is supporting large multinational pharmaceutical companies who need feet on the ground in the markets we cover; the second vertical is companies like Abdul Latif Jameel Health with the Butterfly iQ+ device, where we provide an outsourced white label end-to-end service, from product registration, documentation, sales and marketing; the third is private label products that we sell under the Wellesta brand.
Q. How has the company developed over the three years since its foundation?
MP: The first few months were challenging, as they are for any new company. Our first market was Indonesia. We needed to build our infrastructure, so we used our own money to buy an 85% share in a small company in Indonesia, Citra Pharma. In month four, we acquired our first customer, and later added a few more. Then we turned our sights to India and bought CSO Business of Parazelsus which gave us more structure and scale. The next country we looked at was Malaysia, where we have major share. In 2021, we accepted some external investment from two Singapore-based family offices, which gave us confidence that we are on the right track.
Globally, Wellesta now operates in six countries and have near to 600 employees.
How much did you know about Abdul Latif Jameel Health beforehand?
MP: I knew the name Abdul Latif Jameel from my time working in the Middle East in my previous roles with Novartis, but It was when a contact in the UK mentioned the name Abdul Latif Jameel Health to me, I started to do further research into their objectives The focus on improving healthcare in the Global South in particular excited me as it matches so closely my own beliefs and priorities.
The agreement with Abdul Latif Jameel Health covers the Butterfly iQ+ device in India. What are the challenges and opportunities in the Indian healthcare market?
MP: The Indian healthcare market is big – around US$ 33 billion – and it is growing at around 6% per year. But most of this is based around the largest 10 or 12 cities. That’s where the best equipment, best facilities and most highly qualified specialists are located.
As soon as you move out to more rural areas, or just smaller urban centers, it is a very different picture.
There are three main reasons for this: firstly, the infrastructure is not as good as it is in the big cities; second, incomes are lower and there is no national health system to fall back on; third, the skills and knowledge of healthcare professionals is often lower, and there are fewer, if any, opportunities for training and development.
How can Wellesta help overcome these challenges?
MP: Wellesta in India is a full-fledged healthcare company. We have people in sales, marketing, medical supplies. We have a dedicated training division that trains doctors on new devices and thinking, and how they can improve the quality of healthcare for their patients. This means that with a device like Butterfly iQ+, we are not simply distributing it, we are selling it, marketing it, explaining how it works, training doctors on how to use it and educating people about scans.
We enable our partners to bridge that gap between their business objectives and the reality on the ground in India.
You mentioned the size of the Indian market. How big a challenge will it be to get the Butterfly iQ+ into the hands of the people who really need it?
MP: There’s an old analogy I like which best explains our position on this:
A man is walking along a beach, and he sees thousands of stranded jellyfish, so he starts throwing them back into the sea. Another man sees him and asks, “You can never hope to rescue all those jellyfish, why are you bothering?” And the man replies: “I cannot throw them all, but each one I throw back makes a big difference to that jellyfish.”
That’s how we feel about India. We are not pretending we can get this device to every clinic in every corner of the country, but for those we do reach, it will make a big difference. So, we will do our very best. Wellesta already has feet on the ground in 72 locations in India. Most of the bigger pharmacies cover around 100 locations, so we are not too far behind. And within two years we aim to be covering around 70% of the country’s targeted population.
How great is the need for Butterfly iQ+?
MP: One of the strengths of Butterfly iQ+ is that it is a multi-purpose device that’s applicable all over India.
We see a need in every community. It’s a mass-market device. Of course, we have to be very careful that it is not mis-used. We will be taking a cautious approach to regulation.
There are around 7,000 ‘districts’ in India, with each one requiring regulation of devices like this. We will start off with 170 districts, once the device is regulated there, we will move on to the next batch of districts. It will take us a few months, but we believe it is the right approach to take.
How optimistic are you for the future of healthcare in India and the role you can play?
MP: I am optimistic that we can keep things moving in the right direction. It’s already a huge market, it is continuing to grow every year and I see that growth increasing. Incomes and spending power are rising as the middle class is getting larger, and the government is very keen to develop the healthcare sector and improve the quality of services available to citizens.
On a more personal note, we are continuing to grow the Wellesta team and have recently recruited some high calibre talent to help us achieve our objectives, not only in India, but also in our other markets. I’m confident we have the right people in place to really get things moving.
Our partnership with Abdul Latif Jameel Health, only adds strength to that.
Your focus is very much on developing markets and emerging markets. Is this where your interest lies?
MP: Yes, it is. Emerging markets are often ignored by so-called ‘big pharma’. They tend to focus on more developed markets in Western Europe, North America or the Far East. Many of these markets also have health insurance programs, too.
A company like Wellesta would be of limited use. Our focus is on emerging markets, where we can really make a difference to the quality of healthcare patients receive.
If a small-to-medium-sized healthcare company wants to enter the Southeast Asian market with four or five products, for example, it’s very difficult for them, and can be very expensive. This is why the Wellesta platform is so valuable. We have the people, the local knowledge, the infrastructure. We can do everything from registering the product to importing, marketing, tendering, collecting the revenues. We make it much easier for businesses to enter these new markets and be successful.
What’s next for Wellesta, and what are your plans over the next period?
MP: For the next five years, our plan is to go deeper into our markets by focusing on innovative products in the same therapeutic areas. These include oncology, where we have some exciting devices for example in bladder and breast cancer, and tablets in various areas on oncology. At the same time, we will continue to build our own brand, as well as our partners’ brands.
We are also planning to expand our manufacturing capabilities in Malaysia and Indonesia, and we are targeting more markets to enter, like Taiwan), South Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand.
At a later date, we are also exploring the idea of coming into emerging markets in northern and central Europe, plus establishing a direct presence in North Africa. So, we have big plans for the coming years.
Butterfly iQ+™ is a registered Class B portable ultrasound system designed for ultrasound imaging by trained healthcare practitioners only. Carefully read and understand all cautions, warnings and operational instructions prior to use. The use of ultrasound must be in compliance with the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostics law and cannot be used to determine the fetus gender. Any images of hospitals, clinics or laboratories are a recreation of a hospital, and do not create an endorsement by any healthcare professional, hospital, or laboratory.