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Vol 20, No. 03, March 2016   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
An Interview with Mr. Stephen Ooi, Senior Executive Advisor Zimmer Biomet Asia Pacific
Medical Devices and Technology in Asia Pacific

Stephen H. L. Ooi was appointed Senior Executive Advisor, Asia Pacific of Zimmer Biomet in June 2015. Prior to his current appointment, he served as President, Asia Pacific of Zimmer Holdings and was responsible for the overall operations, sales, marketing and distribution of products and business development in the Asia Pacific region. Stephen was also a Member of Zimmer Executive Operating Committee from September 2002.

Stephen joined Zimmer in 1986 as Regional Manager for Korea, Indonesia and Pakistan. He was then promoted to Regional Managing Director, Asia in 1987, Vice President, Asia Region in 1992, President, Australasia in 2001 and subsequently President, Asia Pacific. Before joining Zimmer, Stephen worked for Johnson & Johnson from 1981 to 1986 as Manager for the Pharmaceutical and Professional Dental businesses in Singapore. Prior to that, Stephen worked in a British trading company, Rank O’Connors, responsible for a range of OTC Pharmaceutical, Opthalmic and Dental Products as well as fast moving consumer products.

Stephen has more than 30 years of experience in the medical device and musculoskeletal business and has a wealth of experience in sales, sales management, marketing, business development and general management. He is a Member of the Board of APACMed and currently holds the position of Hon Treasurer. Stephen holds a Bachelor's degree in Pharmacy with First Class Honours from the University of Singapore and an M.B.A. from the National University of Singapore.

1. Being in the medical device and musculoskeletal business for more than 30 years, what inspires you in your career journey?

The inspiration and motivation that kept my career journey charging forward in the musculoskeletal business was the sense of Actualisation and contributions to improving the quality of life for patients in Asia Pacific and to help elevate the skills of surgeons in the region. The driving force lies in my belief in the potential and opportunities for musculoskeletal products, medical devices and its technologies within Asia Pacific coupled with my love for the dedicated and capable employees that I’ve worked with in the company.

Progress and contribution to quality of life of patients

We are in a great business where we can contribute to improving the quality of life of patients by what we do every day. It is extremely heartwarming and fulfilling to see the smile on a patient's face after their surgery, to see them regain mobility, to walk again and to play with their children or grandchildren, or hearing how they are able to do things that they could not before the surgery. Through the commitment to produce well-designed and high quality products, we will continue to partner with surgeons to improve the quality of clinical outcomes for patients in Asia Pacific.

We had conducted numerous conferences, educational and training programs over the years which significantly improved clinical outcomes and increased the number of surgeons to perform surgeries effectively. For instance, the quality of clinical outcome for total hip and total knee surgeries has improved noticeably over the last 30 years. 30 years ago, recovery for total hip or knee surgeries was slow and focused mainly on pain relief with compromised mobility with large surgical incisions. Owing to the progress in product designs, improvement in surgeon skills and better surgical techniques, patients today are able to restore better and greater mobility with much smaller incisions. Most patients can return home in matter of days and even return to physical activities like golf and walking that their arthritic pain made them give up years ago. Many of these surgeries are even done on a day surgery basis in America and some other countries. It is so exciting and rewarding for me to be part of this evolution and progress.

Surgeon’s skills in Asia Pacific

I still feeling excited and motivated by the opportunity to prove that the skills of APAC surgeons are as good as, if not better, than the surgeons in the Western world. The majority of the products in the musculoskeletal markets were developed by surgeons in the US and Europe, mainly due to their earlier knowledge, experiences and investments by Western companies. These were coupled with the development of surgical instruments and techniques by the designing surgeons to implant the products. Famous names include people like Charnley, Muller, Harris, Insall, Galante to name a few.

The musculoskeletal market in Asia Pacific started blooming later, and surgeons in Asia Pacific learned their surgical skills and techniques mainly from the West. Over the last 20+ years, APAC surgeons have made tremendous progress in knowledge, skill sets and performed a large volume of surgeries with excellent outcomes. Many leading surgeons in APAC are becoming more recognised for their knowledge and excellent surgical skill sets to address challenging issues effectively to provide better clinical outcomes. Such recognitions have been echoed by reputable surgeons in the US and Europe. It is a tremendous sense of achievement when some of these surgeons are now recognised, accepted and able to speak at global conferences alongside surgeons from the US and Europe. I would like to think that we have contributed to the progress through our surgeons’ educational and training programs, fellowships and interactions through conferences and meetings.

There is absolutely no reason why products in the future for the treatment of musculoskeletal conditions would not be designed and developed by surgeons and companies from the Asia Pacific region. More R&D capabilities need to be built in the region to offer surgeons the opportunities to partner, design and develop products that are better suited for patients around Asia Pacific and other regions. These will come from better focused and frugal innovations that are designed to serve the needs of patients more effectively.

Potential of the Asia Pacific region

Sales contributions from the Asia Pacific region to global revenue are currently lagging in many other businesses. However, the gap will be narrowed quickly as the economies and the growth in demand coming from APAC outpace the US and Europe. The demographic, economic, social and political factors will be the key drivers for Asia Pacific’s growth. This translates into opportunities for businesses in the region. The participation of local and regional players in addition to global multi-national corporations (MNCs) will drive the supply factor of the equation for growth in the region.


During my tenure in Zimmer, I have always admired the dedication, hard work commitment, capability and loyalty of the people who give their all to the company. I am amazed by and grateful for the sacrifices they made to contribute to the performance of the company. Many of them have served the company for a very long time, perhaps driven by the passion for what they do every day for the patients. They are the motivational force for me to strive towards excellence as I feel honored and privileged to work with such colleagues.

30 years has been a tremendous journey with many ups and downs but I have enjoyed every bit of my time in this industry. If I were to live my life again, I would not change this for anything but would love the opportunity to do it even better. I have learnt a lot and the experiences have been very enriching and rewarding. I am just glad that I have been able to pass the baton on to someone whom I have had the opportunity to train and trust.

2. What is your role as the Senior Executive Advisor for Zimmer Biomet Asia Pacific?

In my advisory role, I will continue to support the APAC leadership team in formulating the region’s strategies, business and organisational plans to ensure smooth transition and to set the business on its continued strong growth path. The medical device and musculoskeletal business environment is getting increasingly complex and challenging. Hence, it is important that I apply my accumulated knowledge over 30 years of experience to work with the leadership team to navigate these challenges over the coming years.

To strengthen the Zimmer Biomet brand and presence in the region, I will continue to build on the strong relationships and networks that we have established over the years with key institutions, opinion leaders, surgeons and healthcare professionals. I’ll be spending significant time with customers and this offers me the opportunity to strengthen our sales force outreach and programs to enhance our customers’ brand experience, as well as to explore new growth areas for the new company.

People and talents in the organisation will be the key determinants for sustainable long-term growth of Zimmer Biomet in the region. The combination of Zimmer and Biomet has brought together a tremendous number of very talented people into the new organisation. The company will continue to invest significantly to train and develop these talents. I see great opportunities to complement these with mentorship and coaching programs to develop the bench strengths for succession planning of the top three layers of talents in the company. More work will also be needed to continue cultivate a performance orientated culture, to make Zimmer Biomet a great place to work and to attract as well as to retain new talents into the organisation.

It is important that the company continues to focus on driving sales growth and market share gains in addition to focusing on operational efficiencies, speed and simplicity in the business to ensure sustainable and profitable growths. To achieve these, we will work on numerous key strategic projects to achieve our performance goals. Clearly there will be more new initiatives that will surface as we continue to work with customers and the employees over the coming years.

3. As you had been one of the leaders at Zimmer Asia Pacific region for about 30 years, how do you perceive the future prospects of medical devices and technology in Asia Pacific region?

The future prospects for medical devices and technology in Asia Pacific are very bright and exciting. The drivers of growth in the region are strong and contributions from Asia Pacific to the global medical device and technology market are expected to increase over the coming years.

We have a large population mass in Asia Pacific (more than 60% of the world population), rapidly ageing population, underserved and increasing demand for quality healthcare, investments by governments in healthcare infrastructures, policies and processes to improve coverage and access for the population, strong economic growths in the region, increasing middle class and disposable income, more educated and informed consumers. Researches have indicated that growths in APAC will far outpace other regions of the world. The multi-tiered segments in the different markets in the region will present opportunities to local, regional and multinational companies that have the right strategies and structures to serve the unmet needs of these different segments. Businesses in the medical devices and technology within APAC are in a sweet spot of being able to grow strongly while serving the needs of millions of patients in the region to improve the quality of outcome and care.

However, there will be challenges faced by the industry. The rapidly rising demands will strain the budgets, infrastructures and capabilities of the governments of some countries in the region. Public officials will continue to see the need to increase budget allocation to healthcare from demands for better healthcare and growth of the ageing population. To contain the surge in expenses, we can expect regulators to look for means to reduce unit treatment cost through price pressures and increasing regulations. Other challenges that businesses need to learn include navigating effectively, managing talent shortages and competencies as well as increasing competition from many local and regional players.

4. How do you foresee the progress of medical device regulatory affairs in Asia Pacific region? Do you think it hinders the development of new medical devices and technology?

Regulation of manufacturing, importation, wholesale and distribution of medical devices and technologies in the region are crucial to ensure that products marketed for use meet the required quality and safety standards to protect patients. We have therefore seen a rapid increase in the implementation of these requirements in many countries as governments try to regulate the safety of the products in their market. Much progress has been made in regulatory affairs, but unfortunately the rules and implementations vary across countries in the region, hence delaying availability of newer technologies to patients in the countries.

Regulatory affairs per se does not hinder the development of new medical devices. On the contrary, it drives the need for disciplined product development processes and to take into consideration the required data and information needed for product registrations. Nonetheless, the cost of registration, as well as the speed and its accessibility to patients in some countries remains challenging due to lengthy regulatory process caused by a variety of reasons.

The Asian Harmonisation Working Party (AHWP) has been working for many years to facilitate interactions amongst various government regulators to learn, to exchange and develop policies and rules that are more consistent between countries in the region and reduce wasteful duplications. Much progress has been made but more needs to be done.

The industry requires a significant increase in the number of trained and competent regulatory affairs professionals to support the rapidly increasing demand for regulatory compliance in many markets. Some programs have been developed to train more professionals at company level but there is a need for an industry-wide effort to support such training needs to meet the demands for talents. The launch of the program by the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore is a step in the right direction and we look forward to having many adequately trained professionals graduating to join the industry. This is also an area of opportunity for the industry to lend support and investments.

5. Currently, Singapore has many start-ups / small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in medical devices and diagnostic industry. What advice would you suggest for young entrepreneurs to succeed in this field?

Pick what their capabilities can support or would like to pursue and stay focused on driving excellence to differentiate themselves from their competitors, whether it is local, regional companies or MNCs. The medical device industry demands discipline, integrity, financial stamina and innovation to have a chance for success. Quality and a good grasp of the regulatory process will be critical for swift market access and gaining confidence and trust within the medical community. From a financial perspective, companies need to have the financial stamina and discipline to ensure a profitable business in the long run.

There are probably a few pathways that start-ups and SME’s would want to think about:

  1. Going in on your own: This is probably the most challenging of the options listed. The company will need to have products/technologies that can clearly serve a market need with clear go-to-market strategies or have significant cost advantage to serving an existing market. The company will need financial stamina and be able to engage industry sponsors to help market the product or technology.
  2. Partnering/joint-venture with a MNC to grow in a targeted market segment: This is probably an easier pathway where the company can partner up with a large and experienced MNC to go to market. However, there will be need to question what the company can offer for the MNC to invest in a partnership. Ability to support partnership with innovation and designing capabilities will be advantageous.
  3. Be an OEM company: As an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) company, your focus will be to manufacture products with a much lower cost under required GMP and international quality standards. This is probably a good starting point to learn from more established players in the business, but it will be a tough margin business that requires significant working capital and cash flow.

I am sure there are other alternatives not covered here. However, the future and potential are exciting and bright.

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