Vital Signs led her down a different route

Medical marketing consultancy boss left global pharmaceutical giants to start her own firm

Dental disease may not immediately come to mind when you think of complications from diabetes, but entrepreneur Annie Joseph is not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Ms Joseph, 48, is banking on oral health issues as the ticket to the big leagues for her fledgling company.

Her marketing consultancy Vital Signs launched a toothpaste aimed at diabetics last week - the first retail product it has brought to the Asian market.

When foreign companies - like the Spanish one behind the toothpaste brand - want to enter a new region, they may be on the lookout for local partners familiar with the business environment.

And that is where Vital Signs, which is helmed by former pharmaceutical marketing professionals, steps in with its consulting services.

"In the pharmaceutical world, we probably bring in more products where it's in specialist domains... and has to be prescribed," says Ms Joseph, the firm's managing director.

"This sits a little bit outside of that, which is quite exciting for me."


Everyone said it's not cost-economical to have one product. But again, this was an opportunity for me to do it my way, which I've never really been able to do. So it's exciting just from that standpoint.

MS ANNIE JOSEPH, on being able to do things she would typically not be able to in a large corporation.

Ms Joseph, a pharmacist by training, spent more than two decades in marketing at global pharmaceutical giants before deciding to strike out on her own. She set up Vital Signs with two others at the start of this year to help overseas medical suppliers get a foothold in the Asia-Pacific region.

"The way we differentiate ourselves is that all of us have anywhere between 20 and 40 years of working in the business. We are able to give very grounded go-to-market advice to clients," Ms Joseph tells The Straits Times, adding that the firm is already turning a profit.

While its first product was for diabetics, Ms Joseph does not rule out tying up with clients who tackle other health conditions, noting that she wants "to keep my options open".

"I think every small business or new business tries to get a niche, to work on a niche, to differentiate themselves," she adds.

"The issue with some of this - especially in niche diseases, which are even more difficult - is that it's not easy to generate revenue."

So, for now, she refuses to back her company into a corner by sticking to any particular niche.

The main focus for Vital Signs is on items with a lower regulatory threshold: Think supplements and aids, rather than prescription-only clinical drugs. "There've been quite a lot of requests around medical devices. Why? Because medical devices, from a regulatory standpoint, probably take shorter than, say, pharmaceutical products," she notes.

"And also, with all that's happening in the disruptive healthcare space, that seems to be quite a fast-moving, higher-growth sector. But the OTC (over-the-counter) space (too), definitely. The reason that I'm a bit careful with OTCs is that there're a lot of products out there."

After playing for years with the big boys - her career has spanned stints with GlaxoSmithKline, Allergan and Baxter - Ms Joseph now relishes heading up a small business of her own.

"I didn't do any angel investment for this. It was my own in-capital investment that I put aside, and that's why at the start it wasn't about bringing in a group of products.

"Everyone said it's not cost-economical to have one product. But again, this was an opportunity for me to do it my way, which I've never really been able to do. So it's exciting just from that standpoint."

As one example of the difference in methods, Ms Joseph points to the marketing strategy for the diabetes-friendly toothpaste.

"We actually went to diabetic patients. We asked them to give the product a try. And we used their expressions and what they felt about the product as a means of how we executed the whole go-to-market strategy in terms of promotion.

"Typically, in a corporation, this is not easy to do, or you can't do it, or you have many different processes and procedures."

The other plus to being her own boss is having more time to spend with family - especially her 15-year-old son.

"With me being very much more involved in his activities, not only is he competing at the school level in athletics, but he is also competing in the same two events that I did when I was a teenager," she says.

"It's very hard to put a price on that, in terms of how much joy that brought to me."