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EF: If 2020 was the year of diagnostics and 2021 the year of vaccines, what do you think will be the key talking points for 2022 in terms of healthcare in Colombia?
MV: The last two years have been complex for us as individuals and as a society, and I believe mental health will be a big challenge this year. Science has leapt forward in physical and biological health, but there has been a delay in the attention to mental health. The last two years have taught us a lot, and they will help us come together again. Due to economic crises and the challenges in adapting to the changes, the present post-pandemic situation is complex. There is a big gap between biological development and the delay in mental health. Medical science must catch up in the area of mental health.
EF: Considering Colombia imports many healthcare goods, how important is local production?
MV: In the past, Colombia had an important production of medicines, but it has never had the development of knowledge or molecules in the healthcare sector, but instead has been a manufacturer. The capacity to produce has been lost over time, but with the pandemic, the need for local production became evident globally. We must move forward with plans to manufacture our medicines, consumables, medical devices, and maybe even more sophisticated health equipment, even though it means higher costs and dealing with inefficiencies. The first steps are being taken to produce vaccines, and in the short term, there will be incentives for developing productive capacities for essential medicines. Colombia has lost a lot of ground in vaccines; it still does some animal vaccines but no human ones. I believe we will start producing vaccines locally in the short term –possibly within 5 to seven years, and it will be a welcome turn of events.
EF: Could you elaborate on Sampedro's current footprint and how you expect it to change and evolve over the next five to ten years?
MV: Sampedro develops, manufactures, and sells musculoskeletal implants. We have two main commercial lines:
- Trauma, focused mainly on Colombia, we have a very broad portfolio with very strong logistics. Logistics is critical for national coverage; we reach hundreds of municipalities, even in remote parts of Colombia. In this specific niche, we have become well known in the country and have a large market share.
- Custom medic or patient-specific implants: we have been doing this over the last ten or fifteen years. The key factors here are AI, 3D impressions, and knowledge. We also have an important market share in this area and are considering expanding.
Industrias Medicas Sampedro is known in Colombia for having top innovative professionals, developing and using original materials and designs. We launched a plant in the United States a couple of years ago in Daytona Beach; we have patents and FDA-approved products, and four of our systems have FDA approval and are ready to be commercialized in the United States. We have 4 or 5 products, 2 of the trauma line, and the others are patient-specific products and patents. We have plans for further developments in the patient-specific area. Currently, we sell to eight countries, but Colombia is our biggest market –75% of the patient-specific products are sold in Colombia, and the remaining 25% to other markets, but we hope to improve exports. In collaboration with Mayo Clinic, we are developing a new system of a custom sternum which should be in the pipeline in three years. We have already done five or six sternum surgeries. The second Latin American surgery was done with our product in the Bayer Foundation. In Colombia, we have been acknowledged five years in a row -since ANDI started measuring innovation- as one of the most innovative companies in the country.
EF: As a local Colombian success story, what would be your advice to entrepreneurs looking to follow a similar path? What opportunities are there in the Colombian health sector?
MV: Giving advice is never easy, but I believe good results usually come from focused hard work and perseverance, a lot of sweat with a smaller amount of inspiration. Secondly, belief creates reality; it makes other people believe. If you believe in something, you must be prepared to give it all to succeed. To create a new reality based on self-belief, you must put aside distractions and focus on emotions. Thirdly, teamwork is essential; it is very difficult to succeed in a project individually; the basis of most successful enterprises is teamwork, working downward up for sustainable results. I have learned to give the younger generations an opportunity; they work well, shine brightly and come into their own. We must hand over responsibility, delegate important decisions, and walk with people who are not always visible but have potential and a desire to go ahead, as it will mean good results for the person, the company, or the project. An important factor is that the objective must never be a unicorn company or to make a huge amount of money.
I believe that the main purpose and best results lie in serving others. Success lies in offering quality services to the community 24/7 and not focusing on financial gain. The natural consequence of helping people will bring a financial return in the medium to long term. My personal experience has taught me not to focus on financial success but on the enterprise's driving decision-making and strategic direction. Sampedro started as a small mechanic and biomedical workshop. Our first strategic decision was determining our purpose: rehabilitate patients and save lives –as a healthcare company, we save lives! Our work is not about nuts and bolts and creating devices but nurturing our fundamental objective of saving lives. My main advice is to focus on serving patients and saving lives, not on financial gain.
EF: What can be done to increase collaboration between the public and private sectors and local and international companies regarding healthcare in Colombia? What can be achieved through collaboration?
MV: We must not fear competitors, they are our colleagues, and we must be prepared to collaborate. I don't mean sharing industrial secrets, but we must cooperate with the different healthcare actors to improve our ecosystem and benefit the sector. In Colombia, there is a lack of basic knowledge; we tend to be manufacturers instead of developers, designers, or creators. We can generate more knowledge with more collaboration between academia, the state, and the private sector. In Sampedro, we have successfully launched open contests for innovators to resolve issues, offer solutions to a specific problem, and give the winner a prize. We also have a local database of imaging (tomography & bone morphology) on how we do implants for better osseointegration. The Colombian healthcare sector should work on the following:
- Change the paradigm and start sharing with colleagues
- Open the company to allow ideas, opinions, and problem-solving from all regions and communities
- Build, develop and channel efforts to achieve a collaborative public-private ecosystem with the involvement of the state, universities, and private companies.
- Creation of a Ministry of Science and Technology or a public expenditure to generate new knowledge and develop capacities for the country. Colombia has not made knowledge a priority.
Initially, during the pandemic, when there was fear of not having sufficient ventilators, at Sampedro, we started an "Open Source" initiative to develop a ventilator; two universities joined our effort, and we came up with an open source ventilator. The initial project was a collaborative attempt to help the country in a time of need with the only goal of saving lives. The project was eventually abandoned for bureaucratic reasons, but the objective, an exercise in collaboration, was successful. A good regulatory framework should go hand in hand with collaboration. Regulations in Colombia are very safety-orientated and restrictive in developing skills to the extent that some alliances could be misunderstood. Pertinent and appropriate regulations can favour collaboration for the development of the healthcare ecosystem.
EF: To what extent is Colombia a hub for innovation, and what can be done to increase innovation in the country?
MV: We are not very innovative in disruptive and radical solutions in Colombia. Over time we have been improving, in Sampedro, we have a good innovative ranking because we allocate resources to innovation. Being innovative means attempting to find solutions, practising, and making mistakes, but the time and money it takes is always an issue. Nor is Colombia a great generator of patents. Currently, we are more aware of their importance, and today Sampedro has somewhere between seven to nine interesting global patents. There is also the matter of the innovative qualification, innovation in itself is not the objective; innovation must have a goal, give a solution, improve an existing solution or product or serve a patient. Taking innovation to production and the market is the best part of the equation -the most interesting and satisfying part- allowing us to grow as a company and become what we are today. Innovation also represents the strategic initiatives that come directly from the board and our stakeholders. We have to have backing for our projects and initiatives; all things considered, innovation is the best option for future sustainability.
EF: Next year, you will be celebrating the company's 40th anniversary; what are you most proud of achieving in the company?
MV: I have two main reasons to be proud:
- We have a global quality product developed and manufactured in Colombia at much lower and more affordable prices than the multinational companies offer. Having managed to supply the Colombian patients is extremely gratifying. We provide good results in health at affordable prices and global quality at a local price.
- All our employees and collaborators are part of Colombian society; they make it a better community with better professionals. I am very proud that healthcare multinationals frequently poach our people or contact some employees to participate in important positions within the innovation health ecosystem, contributing to society as a whole. Sampedro is the catalyst to provide better people and professionals to the country; thanks to them, we have come this far.