Many trading companies have identified the healthcare industry as a profitable and opportunistic market. The market has faced instability through the early months of the pandemic, due to the confusion and uncertainty in the future of the market. In response to this, Sophie Martineau, CEO and Founder of AquilaVIE, prioritised reassurance and accessibility as core values of the brand.
Retail in Asia had the opportunity to discuss Aquila Healthcare and its story with the company’s CEO andFounder Sophie Martineau. The interview consists of the company’s business model, the release of the AQ Lollipop, and its upcoming plans.
RiA: Coming from the luxury and jewellery industry, what interested you in the health sector?
Martineau: Leaving the high jewellery industry was a huge step and I am very grateful for my previous career in the luxury and jewellery sector as it was this job opportunity that brought me here and paved my path. From my early career in diamonds to my subsequent experience as an entrepreneur when I founded Aquila Group in 2005, it was the luxury industry that brought me to Asia, gave me my experience and reinforced my belief in the highly detailed precision-engineered product manufacturing capabilities in Mainland China.
But the transition from jewellery and luxury to healthcare did not happen overnight and looking back, is something that was driven by two main factors: first is my experience as an entrepreneur. For me, the excitement and challenge of building a business, going after an opportunity, serving an untapped customer segment is very exciting. When I first became an entrepreneur in 2005, it seemed a daunting prospect, but after 15 years, I have learned that focusing on the customer, delivering consistently on quality and having a good team around me are sound business principles which will greatly enhance the chances of success.
The second factor which led me to the healthcare sector would be my sense of community responsibility. As a business owner and an entrepreneur, my personal values, passions and beliefs will inform my business decisions. One of the things I care the most about is to help those in our society who are often overlooked or voiceless. So whether it is trying to find a solution to develop temporary housing for areas affected by natural disasters, e.g. in Indonesia or the US during Hurricane Katrina, or ensuring broad and fair access to medical equipment around the globe – making our communities safer, better and more equitable has always been a common thread.
However, the entry into the world of healthcare was quite unexpected for me, but when I witnessed at the very beginning of the pandemic in late 2019, that basic masks and protective equipment were so hard to come by and in short supply, I immediately activated my sourcing network from China to Indonesia to procure masks and other protective equipment for my team and others in Hong Kong who I knew were having trouble finding or paying the exorbitant prices that were charged back then.
As COVID-19 further spread around the world, I was truly touched by the plight of front-line healthcare professionals – in Hong Kong and everywhere around the globe – who did not have access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). And when the French government also reached out to their contacts around the globe seeking for a reliable and safe source of protective equipment, I knew we had to take action and find enhanced solutions to help get through the pandemic together.
In the early days of COVID-19, the virus continued to disrupt supply chains and none of the big players were able to provide adequate supply, whilst poor-quality, ineffective PPE began flooding the market, causing such panic, confusion and lack of trust in this field. In Europe for example, there were numerous reports of shoddy products coming from China but in reality, it was a case of different terminology and miscommunication. So, as a European who’s been working in China for many years, it truly pained me to see this case of miscommunication having a disproportionate impact on the level of trust and mutual understanding between East and West.
As a response to these happenings, I decided to found Aquila Healthcare Limited in 2020, with the vision to provide high-quality, reliable medical equipment at fair prices, accessible for everyone around the world and with complete product transparency. Ever since then, my team has been working restlessly to develop top-quality protective equipment and other medical products and devices to fight the pandemic. It’s been my mission to reestablish this trust and confidence and to rebuild the bridge and understanding between East and West – and exactly these components are key to inventing, producing and successfully disseminating medical equipment that will keep people and their families safe.
RiA: What drew you to Asia in the first place? And why Hong Kong?
Martineau: I was born and raised in France, and have lived and visited many places in the world. I first came to Asia in 1999 when I was still in the diamond industry, and spent time in Japan and Hong Kong. From the moment that I landed in this city, I knew that this was going to be home.
I have always been fascinated with the dynamic, communitarian spirit and drive in Asia and Hong Kong exemplifies this energy perfectly. When I first came in 1999, the manufacturing industry in China was still in its infancy but you can already see its incredible potential. I saw a great opportunity and was keen to experience and grow in a challenging, completely new environment for me, learning how to navigate the complexity of sourcing and manufacturing highly technical products in the region, whilst learning so much about the culture, values and people. So I decided to take this unique chance and moved to Hong Kong, which is now the place that I feel most at home, with its people who are so warm, caring and generous. It was without question that this city would serve as Aquila Healthcare’s headquarters – not just because it’s my home of choice, but also because it is situated right between our production house in China and our addressable markets in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Also, with our world-class healthcare institutions and access to an international talent pool, Hong Kong has all the elements which are important to build a leading medical device company.
RiA: The AQ Lollipop test kit is an industry first. What inspired this innovation and what was the development process like?
Martineau: While there are many rapid tests available on the market, we noticed that most manufacturers had overlooked a very important segment: children. The pandemic has had an outsized impact on kids’ lives and they continue to be deeply affected with school closures, mask mandates and social distancing. We also know that kids have a lot of trouble with traditional RATs that use a thick nasal swab to collect samples, because they are not adapted to their anatomies, and we heard of many stories of nosebleeds or tantrums when trying to use a nasal swab on kids. In Hong Kong, with the requirement for students to test daily before going to school, this problem is even more pronounced and causes kids and parents a daily headache, adding even more stress and trauma to an already difficult situation.
We started working on a new RAT that actually suit the needs/lifestyle of kids and took into consideration the anatomies of children. Once we identified the target and kept a focus on their unmet needs, the innovation was quite straight forward. We worked with our manufacturing partner to devise a Rapid Antigen Test that can have the same level of accuracy and sensitivity as traditional nasal RATs, but uses a sampling method that is better suited for children. Other oral type tests on the market were either not as accurate or impractical to use with children.
Using our highly sensitive self-test as a starting point, we spent a significant amount of time and effort identifying the best and most accurate way of obtaining an oral sample. We launched the AQ Lollipop in Hong Kong earlier this month (August 2022). As the first of its kind, the 2-in-1 oral and nasal swab offers two options for sample collection.
To test orally, you simply insert the tip of the swab into your mouth and then gently scrape the upper palate and the inside of both cheeks – this method was highlighted by our researchers as the most accurate areas to collect an oral saliva sample, more so than spitting, scraping under the tongue, or sucking on the test cassette. Especially designed for kids aged 1+ (and all age groups above, including adults), this oral swab test offers a painless, more comfortable, safe and reliable testing experience while maintaining its sensitivity to COVID-19.
RiA: Being relatively new to the health sector, which aspect would you identify to be the most challenging?
Martineau: Starting any new business is always hard, and starting a business in the middle of a global pandemic brings even more challenges and obstacles than what a typical new business might face! But the entrepreneur in me would say that with every challenge comes opportunity as well.
One of the major challenges we faced was not being able to travel outside Hong Kong or into China. But having been based in Hong Kong and Shenzhen since the early 2000’s, I had built a strong network of high quality and technical manufacturing partners throughout China and learned how to effectively work with them.
I am also grateful for my very dedicated and hardworking team in China who have been with me for many years and share my high standards and attention to detail; with me unable to travel to China, they have been an indispensable part of our success as they are on the ground, at the factory, with the partners, managing the logistics.
Without the ability to deliver very high quality and reliable equipment, we would not be here today. One of the reasons that we have been successful is that we were able to offer top quality medical devices and protective equipment, reliably and cost effectively.
In terms of being a newcomer to the healthcare sector, the major challenge was that we entered an industry with huge global players that have a presence around the world and decades of history and experience. In some ways the pandemic brought to light some structural problems in the industry and allowed a new entrant such as ourselves to break into the market.
For example, many of the large global players did not manage their supply chains or manufacturing well enough and as a result, many customers (big and small) were left without access to high quality medical devices and equipment. For me, the quality of our products were paramount so we were obsessive in ensuring that we exceeded whatever standards were; and knowing that peoples’ lives were literally at stake, we also managed logistics closely. Throughout the entire pandemic, we did not have one single delayed shipments to any of our clients.
RiA: As part of the Aquila Group, did you foresee that AquilaVIE would eventually tie back to the luxury industry, e.g. a brand collaboration/GOP?
Martineau: Never say never, I would say but I think my focus for AquilaVIE is to build it as an accessible, trusted healthcare brand that stands for quality, reliability and value. However, I would say that my experience in luxury definitely has a deep influence on my approach to AquilaVIE.
First, the meticulous attention to detail that you need in luxury is an absolute necessity for medical devices; because not only are you concerned about your brand reputation, but in healthcare, people’s lives are at stake so there is absolutely no room for error.
Secondly, we also approach the building of the AquilaVIE brand in a similar way to the luxury industry. In healthcare, there are in fact many trading companies who have entered into the market looking for opportunities to make a quick profit. And during the early months of the pandemic, there was a lot of confusion and uncertainty in the market. Which is why early on, I decided that I wanted to transform AquilaVIE into a brand because people were looking for reassurance and accessibility.
So we go above and beyond others in the sector (especially the new entrants) to develop the brand, invest in communications, and getting the message out there, because for me this is a long term investment that needs to exist beyond the pandemic
RiA: Having built an impressive network of manufacturing partners in China throughout your career, how does that help pave a better path for AquilaVIE to grow?
Martineau: My many years of extensive working experience in the Chinese market and strong network of manufacturing partners in China and across the region granted me access to a reliable, efficient supply chain that was incredibly helpful as we were starting Aquila Healthcare. My strong connections allow us to mobilise the production of high-quality PPE very quickly and efficiently, which I believe is the key to paving a reliable, strong and secure path for AquilaVIE to further grow its product line and expand internationally.
Beyond having a network and knowing how to work with manufacturing partners in China, we also have very thorough quality control and logistics operations in China. My China-based team has been with me for over 10 years and shares my obsession with quality and precision. This has been critical in our growth as quality and reliability were real problems that many of the established players faced during the early days of the pandemic; being able to overcome these supply chain problems was an important differentiating factor for AquilaVIE as we were starting up in the past couple of years.
RiA: Catering to mostly Europe and Asia, how does the marketing strategy differ from continents? Do consumers react differently to the same kind of communication?
Martineau: The marketing strategy differs greatly between our different markets: Europe, Asia and the US. First of all, the healthcare sector in Europe is highly regulated and our customers are mostly B2B and governments. European standards and regulations are notoriously very strict and we focus heavily on highlighting our regulatory compliance and meeting of European standards.
In Asia, the market is very different and Hong Kong is our first B2C market globally, so the marketing strategy is very different from what we are doing in Europe and the US. In Hong Kong, we are investing heavily in both brand and product communications; developing and building the public brand profile of Aquilavie as well as showcasing the products in our consumer collection.
Given the strong public interest in public health and safety we are also investing significantly in consumer education in our key categories. At the beginning of the fifth wave in early 2022, we witnessed another wave of misinformation and panic buying as we saw in the early days of the pandemic. With so much misinformation and uncertainty in the public sphere, I feel that providing consumers with the knowledge and facts behind different product categories will empower them to make their own choices and not be taken in by people who aim to take advantage of this uncertainty and
RiA: Where do you see AquilaVIE in 5 years?
Martineau: Our future plan for Aquila Healthcare and AquilaVIE is to continue on our journey to becoming a diversified legal manufacturer of disposable medical devices and protective equipment, moving beyond just COVID related products. We want to further shake up the healthcare sector in our region as an industry pioneer, keeping in mind our core values of developing the highest quality products that our society truly needs.
As we move beyond COVID-related products, our research and development team has been continuously working on new cutting-edge product launches, with new ones in the pipeline, such as advanced wound care to enhance the healing process after surgeries, as well as new additions to our AQINJECT line of needles and syringes to develop specific products for those who suffer from diabetes.
We are also paying close attention to the evolution of consumer behaviour and demand. In the past three years of COVID-19, we’ve noticed a change in people’s behaviour and attitude towards health. All around the globe, people became more conscious about their wellbeing, taking greater control over their health and starting to see the benefit of identifying illnesses or health issues at an early stage. People are now more knowledgeable and comfortable conducting self-testing at home in comparison to the time before the pandemic. Hence, we are currently looking at diagnostic self-tests for other diseases, such as influenza, utilising our expertise and network to help more people in our society.
At the same time, since the world’s medical device industry has been diverted to fight COVID-19 over the last few years, it has been incredibly difficult for other sectors such as the dental and veterinary markets to get the necessary equipment for their needs. Therefore, we’ve been exploring these sectors as well, as we aim to bring our product expertise to categories like gloves, needles and syringes in order to see how we can serve these industry verticals too.
In the next few years, we are also looking at further market expansion: we have been very fortunate that we have seen phenomenal growth over the last two years. Europe remains our largest market, and we are growing our teams and presence in France, Spain, Italy and the UK serving our institutional and professional clients in Europe and the Middle East. Also, I’m very excited about the potential of the US market. We have already successfully established a subsidiary there and are now building a strong and experienced team that will be able to take the sales and marketing efforts to a whole new level. Being the single largest market in the world, the US represents a huge potential for growth for our group, and as it works in a totally different way, I believe it certainly will be an exciting new challenge for us with new possibilities, too. Key products we are aiming to provide in the US include advancement care, disposable medical devices such as gloves, syringes and more.