Philab poised for more breakthroughs
It is never too late to make a fresh start.
For Hector Thomas A. Navasero, his new course was charted in 2011, when he was informed that his mother was battling stage 2 breast cancer.
Alarmed and shook by the prospect that she did not have much time left, Navasero, who was chief investment officer of a listed main board Singapore company, decided to pack up his bags and go back home to the Philippines to take care of her.
As fate would have it, she won the bout with cancer.
But just when the former Director of Hong Bao Media, Pte. Ltd., Sumida Corp. and Express Telecom Asia Pacific thought he could pick up where he left off in Singapore, his father died, leaving him with the responsibility to take over the family business, which has been in the Philippines’ sciences sector since 1959.
Navasero officially took over as president and CEO of Philab Industries Inc., the oldest business institution servicing the fields of medical and scientific research in the Philippines, in 2013 and has not looked back since.
And similar to how he grew other businesses abroad, Navasero is grooming Philab to become a force to reckon with in the global biosciences sector.
Philab was established in 1959 and built its business around designing and building scientific laboratories.
Its respected name is on the state-of-the art laboratories of UP Diliman, UP Los Baños and the International Rice Research Institute, which is at the forefront of rice research.
It also has a presence in the laboratories of as much as 90 percent of local colleges and universities, where research is being undertaken.
Philab is likewise into basic education, providing schools with the tools to learn more about science such as bunsen burners and anatomy kits, which are sourced mainly from China, where it established partnerships as early as the 1990s.
As of the first quarter of 2016, Philab was awarded an initial P3.19 billion in new contracts from the Department of Education (DepEd), the Department of Health (DOH) and the National Institutes of Health UP Manila (NIH) through to 2018.
DepEd has entrusted Philab to supply math and science teaching kits for over 34,000 schools across the archipelago.
Basic science is a P2 billion to P3 billion annual business that Philab intends to maintain going forward.
But what has gotten the company excited are the prospects of sophisticated scientific research. Thus from just providing the research facilities, it plans to unleash the full potential of the research itself, specifically in the field of healthcare.
It started building its foundation early.
In 1988, Philab promoted HIV testing in the country by providing test kits. These were deployed across the country by the government through the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine. From there, it developed its latest diagnostics innovation called LabIT (Laboratory Instant Testing)—a line of rapid self-test diagnostic kits.
Among the first LabIT products rolled out in the market is the test kit specifically for dengue, one of the leading causes of hospitalization in the Philippines, especially among the youth.
Like the pregnancy test kit that can be done in the privacy of one’s home, the dengue test kit can determine in seconds if the fever is being caused by dengue—which can be fatal—or is the more benign variety that will naturally run its course.
This simple diagnostic tool spares patients and their families from useless anxiety as well as pesos that would have otherwise gone to more extensive laboratory tests.
“Our claim to fame today is that we are the biggest dengue test provider in the world,” says the Cornell and Stanford-educated Navasero.
Today, these kits are distributed through the local health units with funding from the government. But the plan is to eventually make it available to all.
Philab is likewise developing 17 new rapid diagnostic self-test kits to meet the requirements of the DOH, with plans to enter the global consumer market.
“Thus our market is not just the Philippines but the world,” Navasero declares.
Today, the healthcare and scientific research portion of Philab’s operations accounts for just 20 to 30 percent of the total business with the traditional science kits and laboratories still accounting for the biggest share.
Navasero plans, however, to bring the share of the healthcare business, particularly genomics, a branch of biotechnology that deals with genetic mapping and DNA sequencing, to at least 40 percent of the topline by 2017, with the balance to still come from the traditional business.
The genomics programs are implemented through the Genomics Institute of Asia (Gina), the first institution in Asia to conduct next generation genomic sequencing.
It will push for the widespread adoption of genetic screening and molecular diagnostics and genomic sequencing services for medical and scientific cases.
Navasero’s mother, whom he still consults on the business, knows the value of genomics, as the research on her genetics allowed her to get the right treatment regimen to address her health concerns.
Gene mapping equals better diagnostics, explains Navasero, and allows a person to take greater control of his health and perhaps stave off the effects of genetics.
“She started my genetics interest. I saw firsthand that it does make a difference,” the 55-year-old says, “Because they sequenced her, she was saved. She is now 82 years old and still goes to work every day.”
“If you know what you are going to get, like knowing the probability of getting Alzheimer’s or bone diseases, then you will be able to live in the know and live a longer, better life,” adds Navasero, “Knowing your whole DNA will tell us what is the best way to eat, how you should exercise and the best food type for you.”
Navasero, who in the 1980s was involved in the design of the now ubiquitous memory stick, feels that genomics will be the wave of the future, such that the company became one of the first in the Philippines to own and operate a genomic sequencing facility offering full genome sequencing and molecular diagnostics for research and medical purposes.
Philab data show that Gina successfully conducted full genome sequencing of different rice varieties for IRRI and the Philippine Rice Institute. In 2013, Gina also launched the first domestic testing of breast cancer mutations, BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, prevalent among Filipino women.
Navasero says there are plans to locate a genomics BPO facility in Clark, Pampanga, and then hire molecular biologists who can help sequence the DNA of anyone who wants to know their profile, not just Filipinos.
“The goal is to establish a biotech hub, where there is manufacturing and research and an incubator for startups. We want to encourage scientists to create and innovate,” he says.
The public can invest in that bright future following the Navasero group’s deal to acquire a majority stake in listed Alterra Capital Partners Inc.
In a disclosure to the Philippine Stock Exchange, Alterra said the purchase of 208.62 million shares of Alterra by Genomics Inc. and Navasero was executed via special block sale on Oct. 11, 2016.
The shares in Alterra were bought from shareholders Conrado Rafael Alcantara, Alfonso Anggala and Star Alliance Securities Corp.
Philab had planned to list on the Singapore Stock Exchange but the opportunity to acquire a clean shell company came about. With Genomics, one of his companies, Navasero bought 67 percent of Alterra for P362.32 million.
The corporate name will be changed to Philab Holdings Corp., signifying the infusion of the biotechnology business into the listed firm.
In 2015, Philab recorded an income of P147 million and expects to have ended 2016 with an income of P600 milion.
Revenues and income are seen increasing even more as Philab moves to get a bigger slice of the estimated P688 billion that the country spends every year on healthcare.
All these moves are part of Navasero’s efforts to establish his own legacy for the company founded by his parents, that over the next few years, Philab, named by the Asian Institute of Management as “one of the local companies to watch out for in Asia,” will be known for not just the education kits but also by being at the forefront of a new frontier in healthcare and science.
“This is my final hurrah, my legacy, to make Philab survive for at least a hundred years,” says Navasero.
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