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Delivering healthcare solutions to people living at the bottom of the pyramid means many different things to Karin Munasinghe MBA1998.
As SVP of Marketing for Asia Pacific with medical device multinational Fresenius Medical Care, there’s the professional challenge of delivering affordable dialysis machines to a new market segment.
Understanding this segment means getting to grips with the unmet needs and lack of means affecting 500,000 patients who have no access to dialysis in China and a million more in India alone. It also means navigating complex ethical and business dimensions to ensure that the development and distribution of life-saving yet low-cost solutions come with a guarantee of quality and performance, and reach people in real need who do not have the same resources as other segments of society in other parts of the world.
This is a new initiative launched in recent months by her company and Munasinghe acknowledges the complexity: “It’s a new segment for me and there’s a lot to understand in terms of patient needs and business models. Going into the bottom-of-the-pyramid markets is interesting. As traditionally underserved groups of people start to build access to healthcare, we’re going to see a rapid increase in demand. This in turn is leading to new challenges in terms of cost and quality. There’s a lot to balance commercially and ethically when you’re striving for equality of healthcare.”
“The MBA was a great opportunity not only to build my business acumen, but also to shake off the restrictive ‘techie’ label.”
For Munasinghe, there is also a very personal dimension to this work. Born to a German mother and a Sinhalese father, she spent her early childhood in Sri Lanka before moving to the UK to pursue her education. Growing up in – and feeling a sense of belonging to – South Asia and Europe has given her a unique perspective and heightened her sensitivity to the different sociopolitical and cultural dynamics that shape societies at different ends of the planet.
She calls it a “happy coincidence” that her professional life has taken this turn. “I’ve worked in healthcare for the last 20 years and the industry has really been focused on the developed markets in the West and Asia in this time. It’s only now that we’re seeing a shift in interest to emerging markets as they become more financially attractive to companies.
“For me personally, there’s a merging of my professional and personal experiences. Spending my childhood in Sri Lanka, I’ve always been able to instinctively turn off Western expectations when I visit. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Now I have to think about it and I’m grappling with all kinds of new questions. But it feels right to me, like I’m in the right place at the right time. And there’s so much to learn.”
Learning has been a constant in her life. Her fascination with life sciences and biotechnology led to a PhD in genetic engineering at King’s College London and she began her professional career managing product lifecycles for DNA sequence databases before moving into more business-oriented roles in the late 1990s; a move that brought her to London Business School and an MBA, graduating in 1998.
“I’ve always been interested in how the human body works and in the healthcare space. After my PhD I went straight to work in the corporate world, but I realised after a while that I was being pigeonholed in tech roles. I wanted to open up my professional options and the MBA was a great opportunity not only to build my business acumen, but also to shake off the restrictive ‘techie’ label.”
It was a decision that paid off. Leaving LBS, Munasinghe moved into a business analyst position with global pharmaceutical company Lilly. A succession of leadership roles with major healthcare players in Europe followed until, in 2001, she took the decision to move to Hong Kong. The experience was “eye-opening”.
“Coming to Asia resonated with me personally, given my background. But I wasn’t prepared for the sheer scale of innovation going on here in the bioscience arena. When you come from Europe, you are immediately struck by the weird and the wonderful in these economies and by the pace of change in our industry. Change here is outpacing what’s happening in the West, which is steady and contracting in comparison.”
As countries like India stabilise under more progressive governments, there are enormous dividends in the improvement of healthcare systems and changing business opportunities that keep Munasinghe and her colleagues “on our toes.”
“What we’re increasingly seeing here is collaboration between government and industry to achieve a win-win situation in innovation, quality and universal or low-cost access to healthcare.
“For me, there is a constant fascination and the challenge of thinking about how to enter the new markets that are opening up. Rural Indonesia is totally different to China, for instance. The great thing about this job is that you honestly never know what will be waiting on your desk from one day to another. Being in Asia is a huge draw for me, with so much change and so much of the region still developing.”
"In healthcare you have the opportunity to give back ... to change the world a little. I wouldn’t have chosen to do anything else with my life"
Keeping ahead of this change and the innovations in technology that are reshaping the industry in general has also translated into a healthcare networking initiative that Munasinghe drives in Hong Kong.
‘Healthcare Drinks’ brings together academics, doctors, manufacturers, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and government officials in discussion and information-sharing around digital innovation and emerging trends.
“Ours is a heavily regulated industry, so it’s really gratifying to have this open platform to share our thoughts, experience and knowledge.
“The industry is accelerating so fast with the convergence of digitisation, automation, precision medicine, home care and changing patient expectations. Healthcare Drinks is an opportunity to be more connected to this change, to share best practices and to learn from each other. It’s amazingly stimulating.”
With more than 20 years under her belt at the forefront of her profession, Munasinghe still feels a strong sense of excitement about the future. There are, she says, plenty more countries and challenges out there to keep her busy for many years to come.
“I am very lucky in a sense, because I am doing what I love. Looking back over my career, I’ve always been passionate about biotechnology and innovation and, working in healthcare, you have the opportunity to give back, to improve people’s lives and to change the world a little. I wouldn’t have chosen to do anything else with my life.”