Amgen forges ahead in Japan with Astellas joint venture

A few short months ago, Amgen ($AMGN) seemed sorely in need of an Asian expansion strategy. Its competitors had put down eastern roots and seemed ready to flourish in a spot Amgen hadn't even explored. But with an agreement this morning with Astellas Pharma to establish a new joint venture in Japan, the world's biggest biotech showed it won't be left behind.

With the deal, the two companies will jointly develop 5 medicines in Amgen's pipeline and form a team, Tokyo-based Amgen Astellas BioPharma KK, to focus on commercialization. The partnership is expected to commence in October, with the first commercial launch happening as soon as 2016 and Amgen taking full control by 2020. With Astellas' knowledge of and experience in the market, the venture should make Amgen a force to be reckoned with in Japan.

"Through this alliance, Amgen will work closely with Astellas to leverage its extensive knowledge of the local market," Robert A. Bradway, Amgen's chairman and chief executive officer, said in a statement. "With Astellas' strong capabilities and excellent reputation, this alliance will help accelerate development and commercialization of Amgen medicines for patients in Japan."

In February, Amgen execs told investors and analysts of plans to expand into major Asian markets, identifying its lack of presence in Japan and China as a "noticeable gap," according to Reuters. This year, the company has set to work filling that gap. This agreement follows another joint venture made by Amgen earlier this month with Zhejiang Beta Pharma to sell colon cancer drug Vectibix in China. And in January, the company tapped Singapore as the new location for a forthcoming $200 million biologics plant.

The push is a necessary one for a company trying to keep pace with other Big Pharma and Big Biotech companies looking to capitalize on Asia's growth potential--specifically Japan's. Earlier this year, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) CEO Andrew Witty hailed the Japanese market as superior to Europe's, noting moves by the Asian country to speed up a process for getting new drugs to market that in the past has been notoriously slow. "This alliance reflects our long-term commitment to the Japan market and is an important step in our global expansion efforts," Bradway said.

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