Exceptional, June - December 2014
When the use of disinfectants caused Dr. Ruth Oltjer more harm than good, she decided to do something about it. Through that action, this Estonian entrepreneur is saving thousands of lives.
Superbugs may sound like a fantasy of science fiction, but in hospitals across the world, they are very real and a force to be reckoned with. Dr. Ruth Oltjer has dedicated her career to obliterating them.
One of the most aggressive of these superbugs is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) — a bacterial infection that is resistant to antibiotics. If carried on the skin, MRSA can cause boils and abscesses, but if it gets into the body, infecting tissues and organs, it can be fatal, causing blood poisoning or endocarditis — an infection of the inner lining of the heart.
“The solution to the problem is often easy: proper cleaning and infection control systems,” Oltjer says. “However, according to the World Health Organization, it is often hard to achieve this in developing countries such as in Asia, Africa and, not long ago, even in Estonia.”
During the early 1990s, after working with hospital cleaning chemicals and disinfectants that caused skin irritations and made her asthma flare up, Oltjer realized there was a gap in the market for quality, allergen-free disinfectants. “Every day, when I washed my hands,” she says, “I longed for products that would not harm people.”
Initially, it was out of personal need that Oltjer began buying more benign chemicals from a UK producer. But soon colleagues in Estonia, as well as in Lithuania, began inquiring about how they too could source some.
Moving her medical practice to the evenings, Oltjer studied for an MBA and set up a company in partnership with the UK suppliers under a private label to import the disinfectants to Estonia, and so Chemi-Pharm was born.
Import volumes grew rapidly, and in 2000, Oltjer began producing the disinfectants herself as a cost-cutting measure. She also added custom-made products to the company’s range.
Today, the company has offices in Estonia, Latvia, Singapore and Malaysia and produces more than 100 different products for more than 5,000 loyal customers in 20 countries across the world. Half of the company’s production is exported, mainly to Russia but also to central Europe and Asia, and 85% of Estonia’s hospitals use Chemi-Pharm products.
In 2012, turnover went up by 60%, due to a rapid increase of exports to Poland, Sweden, Ukraine and Lithuania. The company has also developed its own cosmetics brands, Domina Elegans and Dominus For Men, using plant stem-cell technology.
The way to succeed in this industry is to constantly experiment and test.
These products are particularly important to Oltjer. She began investigating the benefits of plant stem cells in 2007, when her father fell ill and she tried to create a product to help heal his pressure sores.
“Unfortunately, my dad was not able to benefit from our research, but this is how our luxury cosmetics line got started,” Oltjer says, explaining how they used stem cells and silk proteins to create anti-aging creams.
“The way to succeed in this industry is to constantly experiment and test. Plus, you really have to believe in yourself.”
Oltjer is investing heavily in R&D and hopes to take her products to Western Europe and North America, as well as expand operations in Asia, with a specific focus on markets with high MRSA infection rates. According to Oltjer, hospital-acquired MRSA infections may kill as many as 7 million people per year — almost the population of Rio de Janeiro, or slightly less than that of London.
The exact numbers may be higher, but there are no conclusive statistics, partly because of the lack of hospital records in the developing world. In these hospitals, disinfection is often not taken seriously, or not conducted properly.
“Every year I travel to Asia and visit the hospitals to see how they are following the guidelines to sanitize the surfaces and what they do to prevent MRSA. I see a lot of improper use [of disinfectants], and there are cases when the patient dies within two weeks of surgery. I see it as my mission to try to change this,” Oltjer says.
“I also see a lot of medical staff using strong disinfectants that contain carcinogens. And I see medical staff who don’t use disinfectants at all.” Oltjer believes that, if Chemi-Pharm can help those countries to improve hospital hygiene by providing efficient and safe disinfection products and medical training, the hospital infection rate could be reduced significantly and thousands of lives could be saved.
Labor of love
An entrepreneur by chance rather than intent, Oltjer says she does at times miss her medical practice. “I studied so hard to become a doctor that it is a bit sad I have no time to see my own patients. But then again, the work that I do at Chemi-Pharm still enables me to save so many lives.”
Oltjer attributes her business success to her grandfather, who ran a textile company. She says it was his advice that steered her away from economics and toward medicine, instilling in her a business acumen.
“If I look back, there was no other possibility but entrepreneurship for me. It feels like everything has just happened naturally and in a logical order in my life,” she says.
You have to believe in yourself; you have to be convinced that you are doing the right thing.
“For a doctor, international communication and product development is not routine work,” she says. “But I would not have it any other way. I would like to recommend to others to follow their gut feeling. I am not saying the life of an entrepreneur is an easy one, but it is definitely exciting.”
“You have to believe in yourself; you have to be convinced that you are doing the right thing and have the right goals. When you have that — go for it!”
Visit ey.com/lifesciencesto download recent reports from the sector including Progressions 2014 and Beyond borders: global biotechnology report 2014.