Editor’s note: Executive Q&A is a regular feature in LTW.Michael Murphy, president and chief executive officer of Gentris, has been racking up thousands and thousands of frequent flyer miles as he attempts to expand the Morrisville-based pharmacogenomics firm’s business in Japan.

In fact, his most recent trip to participate in BIO Japan 2004, a trade show, was his fifth trip in two months.

“The worst part is that it is almost 24 hours of total travel time to get from RTP to Tokyo,” Murphy tells Local Tech Wire. “When you arrive, your sleep cycle is completely upside down because they are 13 hours ahead of US Eastern Daylight Time.”

Not that the long travel isn’t without its benefits.

“The best part is that you can do nothing else on a 12-14 hour flight but catch up on all the business that requires hours of undivided attention,” he says.

Murphy sees a bright side for Gentris in all the travel. Gentris recently announced a partnership with Quintiles Japan, a subsidiary of RTP-based Quintiles, as part of that expansion effort. Both companies see Japan — with an aging, affluent, health-conscious population – as a lucrative market.

LTW caught up with Murphy during recent trips to talk about doing business in Japan, Gentris and prospects for the future.

What do you like most about Japan?

Truly, the people. I find the Japanese people to be polite, gracious and engaging. They really appreciate foreigners who want to learn their language and their culture. They have preserved their ancient culture and are extremely proud people. Working with my colleagues at Quintiles Japan is really the best part for me personally with respect to our joint initiative.

What are you going to do with all those frequent flyer miles?

Save them up and take my wife to a remote island. I don’t see her much these days, and it would be nice to get away.

What gets you up every morning and excited about going to work for Gentris?

The work that Gentris does has real meaning for patients who might suffer from the fourth leading cause of death, adverse drug reactions (ADRs). Sure, we are increasing shareholder value, we are generating revenues, we are reaching into the global marketplace. These are all things we take pride in at Gentris. What I personally find really exciting is that our products and services save lives. Right now, that is primarily for patients in clinical trials, but soon all patients will have access to this technology, and we will have made a difference that matters in the end.

What is the significance of this deal with Quintiles Japan?

First, this alliance provides Gentris with the opportunity for international expansion with one of the premier Clinical Research Organizations in Japan, Quintiles Japan KK. Secondly, this deal gives Gentris access to many Japanese pharmaceutical companies that do not currently have a presence in the United States. The Japanese pharmaceutical marketplace is the second largest in the world after the US.

Do you view such strategic partnerships as crucial to the growth of Gentris? Please explain.

These partnerships are important to the growth of Gentris because we are still an emerging company, and we need channel partnerships in order to reach markets outside the US. Japan is especially important because Pharmacogenomics is becoming increasingly important to Japanese companies.

What is your partnership strategy?

Our strategy is simple…find good partners who have a mutual and synergistic need for Gentris’ products and services and treat them like we would any client with the highest quality service and attention.

What can other executives learn from your approach?

Partnerships like the one with Quintiles Japan can give smaller companies an immediate boost by providing access to larger markets that would otherwise require a large amount of capital resources and commitment if the company tried to go into these markets independently. It is also about credibility…as the old saying goes, “You are measured by the company you keep.”

The market for pharmacogenomics is growing rapidly. What factors are driving that growth?

Our industry is in an important adoption phase in large part because the Food and Drug Administration has made the use of Pharmacogenomics in drug approval and future prescribing one of its highest priorities. Sometime in the next few weeks an important guidance document entitled “The Voluntary Genomic Data Submission (VGDS) Guidance” will be published. This should help lay out the rules for pharmaceutical companies to follow when Pharmacogenomics will be critical for ensuring timely approval of drugs that may be linked to a patient’s underlying genetic profile for drug response.

Is Japan a lucrative market because of its aging population, or are Japanese more health conscious, or both?

I would have to say both. The Japanese population is aging similarly to the US “Baby Boomer” population, and the Japanese are very health conscious. Pharmacogenomics is just emerging in Japan, but we expect rapid acceleration as more and more Japanese pharmaceutical companies use the science to ensure that only safe and effective drugs are prescribed to Japanese patients.

What lessons and information are you gathering from your trips to Japan and working with Japanese firms that help you do business in the US and elsewhere?

Of course each culture is unique and different in its own way. I personally find the Japanese culture intriguing because everything, including business, is much more formal and ritualistic. I think this is important because many companies make the mistake of assuming that the same rules and conduct in business done in the US apply elsewhere. The Japanese really appreciate when foreign companies take the time to learn their culture and way of doing business, including knowing how to greet them in their native language.

Is there more interest in pharmacogenomics in Japan than in the US? If so, please explain.

I would not say there is more interest in Japan than the US, but there is some concern among both thought leaders in Japan and Pharma that Japan may be slipping behind where the US and Europe are right now. There is a sense of urgency in Japan that is unique and obviously a great opportunity for Gentris and Quintiles Japan.

What makes Gentris unique in this field?

Gentris is unique in that we look at Clinical Pharmacogenomics as a complete system or package. Molecular genotyping is of course one aspect of this, but our clients rely on us for much more, including protocol design, informed consent issues unique to genetics, understanding the FDA’s perspective, and even for simple things like sample collection and logistics. When pharmaceutical companies are ready to conduct gene-based clinical trials, they don’t want surrounding issues to delay their implementation, and we are here to help.

How goes the growth of the company? Any interest in additional funding?

Gentris has grown a lot during the past year from eight employees to 15. We have experienced our “growing pain” part of the evolution of a company and are now focused on strategic growth. We are always looking at the possibility of raising new capital when we think it can accelerate products or services with an unmet demand that was not anticipated when the business plan was first written.

Do you plan to open an office in Japan?

We are exploring that possibility right now. We will at a minimum have a liaison person in Japan in the not-too-distant future. If we decide to put up a full-blown facility in Japan, it will be a Japanese company run and operated by Japanese employees. I believe this will be critical to the success of any presence for Gentris in Japan. Again, these are both cultural and business issues we should not ignore.

Gentris: www.gentris.com