‘There’s something quite exotic for me still about Asia’
Wild Geese: Dr John O’Shea is co-founder of Good Pharma Dermatology based in Singapore
Dubliner John O’Shea: “There’s been enough exposure to western business practices here that you can work very easily with local Singaporeans.”
“People don’t really talk about the weather over here as it doesn’t really change,” says Dubliner John O’Shea from his office in Singapore where he’s been living for five-and-a-half years.
“They’re more inclined to talk about food. I always had an interest in seeing life overseas. I loved Italy and spent a year there teaching English,” says the Gonzanga College alumnus, who studied medicine at UCD.
“At the end of your first two years in surgery, you’ve a period where you figure out what you want to specialise in. I took the opportunity to go to Italy but was persuaded after a year to come back to Ireland and take up my medical career again.”
At the time, the VHI Swiftcare Clinics were being established and O’Shea obtained a position working there as well as working in the area of cosmetic procedures such as botox and cosmetic fillers.
“It made my career path a little bit unpredictable,” he says.
After three years, O’Shea decided that he was keen to investigate the business side of medicine and chose to pursue an MBA at Insead, an international school with campuses in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
“Somebody had said to me ‘Look at the school you’re choosing and where the alumni for that school settle. If you do an MBA in Ireland, your contacts will be in Ireland, but if you want to go overseas, it’s helpful to study overseas,’” says Dr O’Shea.
“Insead is a very international school so the people who study there end up all over the place. In my class, there were 70 different nationalities represented and many of these people move to other places than they are from afterwards. You’re studying with people who have done very different things in very different places.”
O’Shea believes his life would be very different now had he not chosen to study at Insead’s campus in Fontainebleau outside Paris.
“I’d never have ended up going to the US or to Asia and I would never have met my current business partner because ultimately we were introduced through college connections.
“A lot of people probably look at doing an MBA and consider whether they’ll be paid more. It did not make me earn more but the life experiences I’ve got out of it have been incredible.”
After graduating from the MBA course, O’Shea went to Boston in 2009 and worked in a strategy consulting firm, spending a year there before moving to Singapore with his former partner with a view to establishing an online tool to help pharmaceutical companies source contract manufacturers for their products.
“The business did not work out but was a good experience. We probably had too grand ambitions, insufficient practical experience in the countries we were going to and probably not enough money to do it,” he says.
Returning again to consulting roles, O’Shea was introduced to his current business partner Jason Humphries and went on to co-found Good Pharma Dermatology in July 2013, which developed and markets the Suu Balm brand.
“We realised that there were products that we could develop for market that would be available over the counter,” says O’Shea, who explains that many doctors in Singapore also sell products such as painkillers and antibiotics direct to their patients.
Through “serendipity” his business partner, Humphries, was introduced to a consultant dermatologist Dr Tey Hong Liang from the National Skin Centre in Singapore, who had developed a skin cream for patients with eczema and psoriasis.
“Dr Tey was looking for a partner to make his cream more available and, between us, we hammered out a deal that we would license the rights to the product, develop it more, do more testing and launch it for sale”.
The first Suu Balm product launched in April 2015 in Singapore, selling first in hospitals and doctors’ clinics.
In January of 2016, Suu Balm was stocked at Watsons pharmacy chain in Singapore and has to date sold around 62,000 units of product via hospital and retail pharmacies and online.
O’Shea believes that while Singapore is not the cheapest place to live (he says accommodation, cars and international schooling are expensive, albeit world class) it offers many benefits in terms of lifestyle including good weather and as a springboard to exploring the rest of Asia.
He also advocates that you can “almost step off the plane and start doing business” there.
“There’s been enough exposure to western business practices here that you can work very easily with local Singaporeans. Of course, the more you understand the nuances of their culture and how they like to do business the better, but if you are coming over to work in a corporate role or doing what I am doing, it is very straightforward to do business here.”
O’Shea says there is a strong network of Irish people in the region although he doesn’t engage with it to a huge extent thanks to his ready-made network from Insead.
Learning Chinese has not been imperative either as many people speak English but it is on his to-do list not least as the Suu Balm brand will branch into China early next year.
O’Shea, who speaks both French and Italian, says he hasn’t quite satisfied his wanderlust, but Singapore is definitely home for now.
“There’s something quite exotic for me still about Asia. There’s a bigger cultural gap that makes it more interesting for me,” he says.