Dr. Amina Sugimoto,
You are the CEO & Co-Founder of fermata, a Japanese company providing market entry services and sales distribution channels to international women’s health companies expanding in Asia.
Created in 2019, your company is headquartered in Tokyo and has a subsidiary in Singapore. Your organization recently reached 40+ employees and raised its Series A funding.
In October 14-16, 2022, fermata hosted the third edition of the Femtech Fes! conference in Tokyo - the world's leading Women’s Health event with 3,000 visitors and 200 exhibiting companies.
So many achievements in 3 years, that’s impressive!
What’s been your professional journey so far?
Let’s learn more about you!
1. First, could you please share with us your career path? Who are you and what brought you to create fermata in 2019?
I spent most of my twenties in academia. I wanted to become a medical doctor. That comes from me growing up in Africa. As a child, I wanted to work in the development sector as a medical doctor.
As an undergraduate in Germany, I did pre-medicine and considered going to a medical school in Japan.
Along the way, when I was about 20-22 years-old, I got interested in the public healthcare field and obtained my PhD in public health and global health.
I left academia between 2016 and 2017 and worked for a public health think tank for a while as I had developed an interest in the start-up world. I had the privilege to meet one of the leading serial entrepreneurs and investors in Japan and Singapore. I worked with him for about 2 years and took part in a few investments within the health tech sector.
It was at this time that I came across the term Femtech. I realized “Gosh, there’s something happening in the West but it’s not really happening here in Asia.”
The domain I specialized in public health was access to medicine. I kept thinking “How do we deliver top notch medical products to people that need them the most at the right timing? How do we deal with regulations, health policies, insurances, health systems and marketing within one country?”.
As I learned about the Femtech sector, I started to think: “That would be interesting if I brought Femtech products to Asia. Let’s create a new market here!”.
That’s when I started fermata in 2019.
I thought: “That would be interesting
if I brought Femtech products to Asia.
Let’s create a new market here!”
2. fermata has imported the products and services of approximately 20 Women’s Health companies in Asia with B2C and medical backgrounds.
Why should emerging brands select Japan and Asia on their expansion roadmap? What key success factors could you share with us?
Globally, looking at women’s health, I think it’s quite clear that Asia is the next up and coming market.
In terms of maturity, while the market is already existing in Europe and North America, it’s still premature in Asia and what we consider to be a blue ocean. For any FemTech or FemCare companies considering global expansion, I think Asia will definitely be a great market. In terms of population size, obviously, and also because the competitive landscape is limited.
When would be the right time? I would say, the sooner the better to start the launch process, especially for companies needing specific medical registrations for their products or services to operate in Japan.
From early-stage discussions between founders and ourselves up to the point you get the medical license, it can take 8 months to 2.5 years.
The ideal scenario is to start these discussions when the product is still in the development phase. There's a lot we can actually consider in terms of regulations from the R&D stage, things that we can change (ex: a product becoming a class I medical device and not class II…etc).
One thing that we have learned with international brands is that, even if a product performs well in Europe or the U.S., it does not necessarily mean that it will succeed in Japan.
But there is a chance for a product to do well if we change the communication.
For example, if you are a brand in Europe with a TV commercial performing in the European market, and you think you can translate the same commercial and bring it to Japan, people might think “Oh, it’s cool but it’s not for us, it’s something happening in the West.”.
The marketing communication and nuance behind every production needs to be thought through from a local perspective and on that side, fermata can help brands as well.
"The marketing communication and nuance behind every production needs to be thought through from a local perspective and on that side, fermata can help brands as well."
3. For startups developing medically-validated devices and/or softwares, how do you support their launch within the Japanese healthcare system?
First, we get as much information as possible from the company:
What is the product about?
How does it function?
How do you want to market it in Japan?
Who is your target?
Once we have this information, our teams digest and brainstorm scenarios depending on the types of device or services (ex: medical device class I or II…). These scenarios include what we can say or can’t say, marketing possibilities, sales channels options etc...
We will then provide the client with a variety of options and spend the next couple of months discussing together the business model and marketing strategy that is suitable for them and the market.
Following that decision, we initiate the administrative work, starting with the foreign manufacturer registration. We also register the product as a medical device using our dedicated license if necessary. fermata will provide the support to any products or services requiring a registration to be available in Japan.
Finally, when we are ready to market, our Marketing and Sales teams will start planning the launch plan.
In terms of sales distribution, fermata also has a warehouse in which the products can be stored and re-packaged with stickers so that they can be ready for the Japanese market and assigned as a medical device.
And then we ship them to our retailers and our stores and so forth.
"fermata will provide the support to any products or services
requiring a registration to be available in Japan."
4. fermata has been proactive in developing FemTech awareness within the Japanese and Asian markets, notably through its annual Femtech Fes! conference in Tokyo.
What’s been your journey in raising such awareness among the various stakeholders?
The first edition of the Femtech Fes! was in 2019, before we launched the product. That was before Covid-19. I was still thinking of the business model of fermata.
At one point, one of my mentors was like: “You are talking a lot about Femtech but do you really know about the whole Femtech industry?”. And I was like “Yes, that’s true. I only know a few products and founders.”
I contacted a few founders and asked them: “I am thinking of doing a special Femtech event. Would you send a product for free?”. About 30 of my interlocutors replied and we did a hand-made exhibition in a venue in Tokyo. I had no idea how many people would be interested in this.
I actually charged the ticket $25 per visitor, which was quite expensive. We communicated only via SMS, Facebook and Instagram. And it turned out that over 120 people showed up to the event.
It kind of made me think: “These people have been connected over the internet, they have the information but they haven’t had any opportunities to actually really see and experience the (Femtech) products”.
This first (offline) event initiated this idea that this is how we should communicate to people here in Japan. For a long time, we could only post online events. But last year, for the first time, we hosted another big offline event. 1,600 visitors attended and 166 products from 22 countries were showcased resulting in a great success.
Our approach was to raise awareness among Japanese persons through the experience of Femtech products. Oftentimes, people have an individual concern or a wellness issue but they don’t really want to talk about it. If there’s a product in front of you, people are willing to talk and have a conversation.
"Oftentimes, people have an individual concern or a wellness issue but they don’t really want to talk about it. If there’s a product in front of you, people are willing to talk and have a conversation."
5. Any special memories that you would like to share regarding your experience with the Japanese government?
The Femtech Fes! conference was a turning point.
What happened was that a lot of Japanese media and fashion magazines started to pick up these key words when we started to communicate on our different Women’s Health-related events.
The politicians were like “okay, there’s something happening”.
At one point, I had the privilege to present products to one of the leading female politicians in Japan. She was super astonished: “Why are we not having these products in Japan?”.
Upon realizing there were so many reasons, she wanted to support this on a government level and said: “Why don’t we start a study group?” That was 3 years ago, in 2019.
"At one point, I had the privilege to present products to one of the leading female politicians in Japan. She was super astonished:
Why are we not having these products in Japan?"
6. In your opinion, which health areas should deserve more innovations in the future? Are there gaps in care specific to the Asian market?
I think that the common answer that we often start to hear is menopause which is a huge market. We have a growing senior population, especially in Japan. Quite a number of people are going into menopause and in recent years, more women have been holding management positions. The Japanese government started to change policies. For the last 10 years or so, there has been an increased effort from the major Japanese public companies to increase the number of female managers positions. So now, we have an increased number of female individuals working and experiencing menopause at the same time.
Another gap in care that I recently discussed with my gynecologist friends is support for women experiencing premature baby death. Interestingly enough, there are more and more solutions regarding fertility. There’s not much physical and mental support services for those who go through premature deaths of their babies. It is actually more common than we think. Many women go through this experience and a lot of them tend to blame themselves. This health event needs to be addressed more.
7. Last, what’s coming next for fermata after your Series A fundraising in May 2022?
I can’t say much except that we won’t stop at importing Femtech products.
More is coming in the future.
Many thanks for your time Dr. Amina Sugimoto!
We look forward to following fermata’s upcoming milestones!
Charlotte from FemTech Now
This article was initially published on the FemTech Now Linkedin page on September 21, 2022.