Capricornia’s smart road to A$4.74 million Chinese joint venture

Australian scleral lens manufacturer Capricornia Contact Lens signed a A$4.74 million joint venture with Chinese ophthalmic products distributor, Guangzhou Ruitai Biotech Co., Ltd on 19 June. The 2 companies will establish EPICON (Chengdu) Medical Technology Co., Ltd in Chengdu, China.

‘Through the hard work over the past three and a half years, we achieved the accelerated registration of the first Rigid Gas Permeable scleral lens in China via the Real World data program. This is a remarkable milestone for both Capricornia and Ruitai,’ says Tony Capitano, Managing Director, Capricornia Contact Lens.

‘EPICON will focus on the R&D and manufacturing of scleral lens and other ophthalmic products,’ says Yongliang Lin, founder of Guangzhou Ruitai. ‘It will provide a whole set of innovative solutions in areas related to adolescent myopia, ocular surface diseases, refractive correction, and contact lens care products.’

A fast-tracked journey to China

Founded in 1985, Brisbane-based Capricornia Contact Lens manufactured its first scleral lens in 1994. It is one of the earliest manufacturers of scleral lens in the world. The firm’s designs include lenses for Orthokeratology, irregular corneas and specifically the treatment of Keratoconus. Capricornia also manufactures a comprehensive range of custom soft and rigid gas-permeable lenses using state-of-the-art computer-controlled lathes.

Guangzhou Ruitai Biotech is a high-tech enterprise focused on research and development, manufacturing, and sales of ophthalmic medical devices. Committed to the ophthalmic industry, Guangzhou Ruitai has invested in ocular surface repair, the prevention and control of adolescent myopia, and the treatment of glaucoma. Many of the company’s ophthalmic products enjoy the largest market share in their respective segments.

In June 2019, Austrade Shenzhen introduced Guangzhou Ruitai to Capricornia. This came after China’s State Council released a policy allowing the Hainan provincial government to directly approve the import of certain medical devices that were not previously registered and approved by the National Medical Products Administration (NMPA). This policy allowed foreign medical device firms fast-tracked market access to China via Hainan before needing to meet the necessary requirements for access to China’s broader market, which usually takes years.

Austrade then facilitated a group of executives from Ruitai to visit Capricornia before the 2 parties signed a 10-year contract at the end of November 2019. Shortly after, through Hainan’s fast-track medical device program, the first batch of lenses, named Epicon A, were exported to Hainan. They were used in the designated Bo’Ao Lecheng Hospital in December 2019.

Capricornia was initially hit hard at the start of the pandemic but quickly rebounded. The company now enjoys a dominant market share among all imported scleral lenses (including those from the US and Japan) in Hainan.

On 19 June 2023, via its 3.5 years’ Real World data program in Hainan, Epicon A was officially approved and registered with the NMPA and will be rolled out nationwide. Epicon A is the first and the only approved rigid scleral lens in China. Capricornia is breaking new ground and is in a good position to lead the market and fill the huge domestic gap.

Commitment to the China market

‘It is expected that the localised manufacturing and large-scale production will be possible in 2025. At the same time, EPICON will be equipped with automatic manufacturing equipment and gradually bring in other leading ophthalmic products from Capricornia covering defocused soft lenses, soft astigmatic, and multi-focal contact lenses. We aim to reach an annual output value of CNY 600 million and at least an annual growth rate of 30%,’ says Lin.

‘The advanced ophthalmic technology from Australia, and the strong supply chain and the market size of China, are an ideal match,’ adds Capitano. ‘The teamwork between Ruitai Biotech and Capricornia has been perfect, and we could not have found better partners. We are confident the joint venture will be highly successful and our joint devotion to excellence will earn us a trusted reputation.

‘Our mission has always been to provide patients with safe, effective, innovative eyecare products to enhance their daily lives. We believe the approval from China’s NMPA and the establishment of the joint venture will help improve the ophthalmic health of Chinese patients and contribute to the development of the Chinese optical industry,’ says Capitano.

Australian medical devices exporters tap into China

Capricornia’s success demonstrates how preferential policies of foreign local governments can be leveraged to navigate and gain first-mover advantages in global markets. Australian medical device companies are increasingly setting up Wholly Owned Foreign Enterprises, joint ventures, or collaborating with local partners for their R&D and manufacturing in China.

In addition to Capricornia, examples include:

  • Cochlear opening an R&D and manufacturing centre in Chengdu in 2017
  • ICON opening 5 tumour radio centres in China since 2019
  • Uscom partnering with Foxconn to commercialise and manufacture products in China.

Austrade’s contribution to the successful union

Capricornia and Ruitai executives acknowledged the critical role played by Austrade as a neutral third party. Austrade connected the 2 parties and contributed to the NMPA’s approval of Epicon A and the setup of the joint venture.

‘Austrade Shenzhen made the first introductions between our 2 companies. Without this first step, we would not be where we are right now. Capricornia will forever be grateful to Austrade for their assistance throughout the process leading to the signing ceremony,’ says Capitano.

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