“We have begun our backwards integration, going all the way back to the plant, through our collaboration with Marmara University. In two years, we hope to be a 100% end-to-end integrated company, and in this regard, we are one of the first in Turkey.”
Atabay is the first seller of paracetamol in Turkey, and four years ago Atabay launched into biotechnology as well. In light of this evolution can you update us on the most recent developments taking place in the company?
In 2015, we started the biotech project supported by TUBITAK organization to produce a biosimilar product starting from cell bank to final product. This project is conducted in collaboration with two universities: ITU’s Molecular Biotechnology and Genetics Research Centre and Marmara University’s Department of Bioengineering – Bioprocess and OMICs Engineering Research Group. Together with government support, this triangle of partnerships works very well, and we have just completed our pilot production and are now starting the pre-clinical stage. Different about this project is that we create almost everything, from downstream to upstream processes and analytics. Atabay has the first GMP certified master cell bank produced in Turkey, and our R&D centre has received the official certification of the Turkish government. This year we are also expanding into herbal-based medicines, which marks a new focus for the company.
Could you elaborate on the symbiosis between the company and public and academic stakeholders?
The master cell bank we are assiduously working on is not simply a commercial project, but also a knowledge building project: scientists were trained at Atabay, all either postgraduate or PhD students, helping to develop new science for Turkey; they learned with us, and we learned with them. Three other companies (Ilko, Deva and Nobel) received the grant from the government, and we are all working together (biosimilar pre-clinic and clinic studies’ policies and financial support mechanisms, and standardization of processes) in a way that creates an ecosystem. These four players may have seen each other as competitors, but now they sit at the same table to uniformly consult the government on matters of common interest.
With the objective of creating these knowledge chains between the scientific world and industry, how could university-industry collaborations be further fostered in Turkey?
We noticed that in Turkey, the collaborations are not between the university and the industry, but are tied between an academician and the industry. We need to change the nature of this contract from individual to institution. Sitting at the board of the University Industry Collaboration Centers Platform (ÜSİMP), I took the initiative to conduct our contract at university level and not at the individual level. In this way, the university is more accountable for the project and available in the long-term for projects that last up to 10 years. If the academician changes, the department remains responsible for the project, securing the sustainability of the research and its likelihood of success. At Atabay, we have had eight projects of this kind, which is an unprecedented milestone for the company, and we seek to continue in this vein. With third generation leadership in charge, Atabay shows more openness to accepting the value that incredibly talented scientists can bring into our organization, and this mindset could prove prolific for other players in the industry too. ‘R&D interface development project- YAY’ supported by the İstanbul Development Agency run in collaboration with 12 institutions and Atabay’s R&D Center shows our commitment to open innovation.
Atabay stands out as one of the few API producers in the country. What are the advantages of continuing this line of production?
Atabay is one of the few Turkish API producers, with half of our API production going into captive consumption for our own formulations, and the other half is sold in export markets, making us a global player on the API front. In Turkey, there are about 250 pharmaceutical producers, and out of these, around 80 produce finished dosage forms, and only five produce APIs, of which three can claim to be 100% Turkish. We are one of them. The first advantage is strategic, both for the company and for Turkey more broadly. We produce paracetamol and oseltamivir phosphate APIs for influenza. Whenever there is an influenza outbreak, it becomes very difficult to source the APIs because the producers will sell mostly to big pharma.
Another advantage is controlling the pricing, which is crucial if we consider the fluctuations of the Turkish lira against the dollar or the euro. Thirdly, our philosophy is that ‘whatever we produce, we own the API,’ and we will continue on this devise, not because it is more profitable, but because this is the only way we can develop knowledge. In fact, we have begun our backwards integration, going all the way back the plant, through our collaboration with Marmara University. In two years, we hope to be a 100% end-to-end integrated company, and in this regard, we are one of the first in Turkey.
Worldwide, we have seen a new trend in the uptake of plant-based, traditional medicines, alongside nutraceuticals, food supplements and OTC. Could you share with us how Atabay is picking up on this trend?
This year Atabay added traditional, herbal-based medicines to our classical pharmaceutical and biotech divisions. On the consumer size, demand is growing slowly in these segments, but we need to differentiate between the food supplements versus traditional medicines, the latter following the full regulatory passage of chemical pharmaceuticals production. The industry and the government have both realized the upcoming trend, and Turkey has the widest biodiversity in Anatolia. We analyze countries like Germany, India and China, which are the most advanced in traditional herbal medicine, and we will start our first product research most likely by the end of this month.
The biotech sector has seen a big push from the government. What are the necessary conditions to be fulfilled before Turkey takes off in this sector?
Both in pharma and in agricultural biotechnology, all the elements are there, from technical and scientific acumen, dynamic industrial players and governmental availability. However, these aspects need to be orchestrated in a coordinated manner. Today, the biotech sector receives some grants from the government. Focus needs to be applied and substantial capital invested in the right projects. We need government grants for pre-clinical and clinical studies and organization to coordinate these grants.
Atabay has a vast international presence. What is your experience of commercializing Turkish products on the global markets?
Since 1985, Atabay received the GMP and FDA approvals for APIs, and we are selling APIs around the world. We have been selling finished dosage forms mainly in our region. With the recent EU GMP facility, which includes production for sterile products, we are targeting the EU market. All Turkish pharma companies are aiming towards the export markets, and it is important to create regional hubs such as a Pharma Valley Turkey to gain recognition for quality and reliability.
Could you share your vision for how Atabay will develop in the future?
At Atabay, we are selling 50 million packages of paracetamol yearly at very reasonable prices and reaching the homes of everyone who needs the medicine. Not many pharmaceutical companies will enter this low-margins market. But for us, two aspects emerge from this fact: the first is that we are driven by the desire to have an impact on the population and to assume responsibility for reaching the people on the streets; we wish to be a company with a purpose that stands for more than having the strongest financials or biggest EBITDA margins. On average, our employees stay for more than 25 years with Atabay, and I believe this is a real indicator we are more than a profit-driven business. The second aspect to highlight is that we would like to create enduring brands backed by APIs, to guarantee the supply of medicines independent of world economy or world politics. Last year, when the euro went up and pharma companies stopped importing medicines, we continued production despite the loss incurred, to assure hospitals of uninterrupted supply. Our employees, shareholders and various stakeholders together play a role in making Atabay a company with a social mission, which we hope to carry onwards to the fourth generation and beyond.
In the future, we aspire to become a centre of research of high technological capabilities in both classic pharmaceuticals and biopharmaceuticals. Our main goal is to continue to develop knowledge, unlock the potential of medical development and continue to absorb the unique expertise of the scientific world into our laboratories through collaborations with universities, together with whom we can create the know-how needed in the region. In the long-term, we dare hope Atabay will ground itself as a centre for viral infections within MENA region, by providing solutions for influenza.