Entrepreneur with ‘revolutionary remedy’ for TCM
When Abraham Chan walked out of the University of Toronto in 1982 armed with an engineering degree, he had no clear idea where it would take him.
He managed to secure work as a structural engineer, but the young Chan was restless. He wanted more.
“I guess it was my entrepreneurial spirit coming out in me,” he said shortly after he delivered a speech extolling the virtues of traditional Chinese medicine before an audience of healthcare professionals in Sydney. As the founder and chairman of PuraPharm, Chan heads the fastest-growing TCM company in Hong Kong.
“When I left university, TCM had never entered my mind as a possible career path,” he said.
Following graduation, Chan found himself in the middle of one of the biggest real estate booms Canada has ever seen. Between 1985 and 1989, the average price of a house in the greater Toronto area rose 113 percent.
After working a couple of jobs, Chan got together with two of his friends to go into the real estate brokerage business. But like everything else in business, it is all about timing. In 1990, the market crashed. “We had a few successful projects in Toronto where I earned my first bucket of gold ... albeit a small bucket,” he said.
Being the youngest member of the team, Chan was dispatched to Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland to search out new real estate opportunities. But it was in a sector other than property that he spotted an opening.
In 1991, while visiting his mother’s hometown of Guiyang in Southwest China’s Guizhou province, a relative showed him a fungus called lingzhi.
“Up until then I thought this mushroom-type herb only existed in stories which extolled its mystical powers. I didn’t know it actually existed,” Chan said. “That was my first acquaintance with TCM.”
Lingzhi, or “supernatural mushroom”, is often referred to in Chinese classical texts as the “elixir of life”.
“The more I handled this herb, the more fascinated I became, so much so that I bought control of a small Chinese company, Weijang, in 1992 and started manufacturing a supplement using lingzhi.”
That was the easy part. The hard part was selling it, as Chan knew nothing about marketing.
“I read every book I could find on marketing and became pretty good at it,” he said. “When the supplement hit the Hong Kong market, it became an instant success.
“That’s when I went from being a professional structural engineer to becoming a medicine man,” he said, breaking into a broad grin.
Born in Hong Kong in 1960, Chan spent his formative years attending La Salle College in the city. When he was 16, his father, a local businessman, died suddenly.
“It was hard on all of us at the time, so mom, who has been the rock of our family, decided we should move to Canada to start a new life,” he said.
Chan’s interest in TCM did not stop with just a few supplements.
“I wanted to take it to the next level,” he said. “I didn’t want to just manufacture supplements. I wanted to go into the more serious side of TCM development, including new TCM drugs for professional use.”
Chan described the TCM industry in the early 1990s as “pretty primitive”. Back then, most professional practitioners were prescribing raw herbs to their patients, who had to boil them at home before they could take them.
“That greatly deterred the development of TCM,” he explained. “I wanted to embark on doing a project to improve the use of TCM in my company, but my other shareholders were skeptical about the idea.”
Chan was so obsessed with the idea of improving the use of TCM that he sold his shares in his first company, and formed another one in 1998 with a sole vision of modernizing Chinese medicine. Thus PuraPharm was formed.
Chan said PuraPharm has “revolutionized the use of TCM” and the concept is now successful in many parts of the world, with clinics in Australia, Canada and the United States, as well as in the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong.
In July, the company successfully listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
Today, PuraPharm is the only Hong Kong company licensed by the China Food and Drug Administration, and is one of only six manufacturers in the mainland allowed to produce and sell TCM prescription granules.
The company’s tour de force, Chan said, is its series of instantly dissolving TCM prescription granules marketed under the brand name Nong’s.
Developed in-house, Nong’s is by far the TCM brand most widely adopted by Hong Kong hospitals and accounts for more than 70 percent of the Hong Kong market.
When Chan set out to build PuraPharm, he realized that the key was research and development.
So he went to Hong Kong Baptist University with research funds and carried out DNA analysis of lingzhi products with the university’s Institute for the Advancement of Chinese Medicine.
“Later we bought out the patent so obtained and launched PuraGold, a widely popular health supplement containing the essence of six species of lingzhi,” he said. “This turned out to be a major step in the development of the company.”
PuraPharm now provides research funds to the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong.
IP is vital to the pharmaceutical industry, Chan said. “Without IP, our company would not have the results it has today,” he said.
PuraPharm owns more than 100 trademarks and some 30 technology patents. It also invests as much as HK$3 million to HK$5 million ($386,000 to $644,000) in patents and trademarks every year.
The modern TCM production facility the company has set up independently in Nanning not only meets Chinese Good Manufacturing Practice standards, but has also achieved Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration certification — the toughest of its kind internationally.
Chan puts his success down to hard work rather than luck. His life, however, would have turned out differently if the Canadian real estate market had not crashed when it did.
“Perhaps TCM was my destiny ... who knows,” he said.