“We believe we have a responsibility to take care of our society, our community, and our own people”

No boundaries to saving lives

Boehringer Ingelheim in Japan keeps the health of future generations in mind


NOVEMBER 2021 Investing in Japan / Text by Toby Waters / Photos by Michael Holmes

In 1876, Erwin Bälz became one of the first Western doctors to teach medicine at the University of Tokyo, and he later became the personal physician to Emperor Meiji. By helping to introduce modern medicine to Japan, this German doctor made a lasting, life-saving contribution to the country. His legacy is celebrated by the German pharmaceutical firm Boehringer Ingelheim, which established an award in his name to recognise those in Japan who are making advances in medical research. Bälz lived to support the advancement of medicine here, and it’s this spirit that permeates Boehringer Ingelheim’s Japan office today.

“This award has been highly regarded by medical societies in Japan for more than 50 years,” says Yoshiaki Aono, the Japan office’s representative director, chairman, and president. “It’s one of the many ways we have encouraged Japanese innovation in the medical field.”

Founded in 1885, Boehringer Ingelheim is one of the world’s leading pharma firms, with a focus on human medication, animal health, and biopharmaceuticals. In the first half of this year, it supplied more humans and animals around the world with innovative medicines than ever before over a six-month period.

Its operating entity in Japan, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, is the only foreign-affiliated pharma firm with a full, end-to-end operation in the country. It has a research institution in Hyogo Prefecture, a production facility in Yamagata Prefecture, and its head office, for the business side, in Tokyo. Its medicines, such as a tyrosine kinase inhibitor to treat pulmonary fibrosis and an SGLT-2 inhibitor for type-2 diabetes, are supporting the firm’s continuing growth in Japan — and helping many people.

“Serving humankind is something special,” says Aono. “We believe we have a responsibility to take care of our society, our community, and our own people.”


With regard to its pharmaceuticals for humans, Boehringer Ingelheim focuses on cardiometabolic diseases, respiratory diseases, oncology, immunology, and diseases of the central nervous system. Having an R&D laboratory in Japan allows the firm to develop cutting-edge medicines in these areas specifically with the Japan market in mind. It also creates more opportunities to connect with experts in the field of life sciences. “As a company, we are very engaged in finding good partners,” says Aono. “It is vital for us to complement our internal expertise with collaborations with academic institutions and other companies to bring real innovation for people today and in the generations to come. We call this Research Beyond Borders.”

Boehringer Ingelheim in Japan works with the Japanese Foundation for Cancer Research and the National Cancer Center, doing joint research on rare cancers. It also collaborates with the Japan Kidney Association in order to raise awareness about chronic kidney diseases.

“We also have an agreement with M3, a pioneering firm in the digital communications space for pharmaceutical businesses in Japan,” notes Aono. “They are creating an AI engine to help diagnose lung diseases. We provide the expertise; they provide the AI. It’s a great example of a collaboration that is helping us with our digital transformation.”

The firm recently organised the third annual Boehringer Ingelheim Innovation Prize, asking universities, startups, and researchers to submit their research project ideas. The winners enter into a partnership with Boehringer Ingelheim to make their ideas a reality.

“We’re very happy to collaborate with other experts,” says Aono. “By working together, we can learn more, do more, and achieve more for patients.”

“We support a diverse, collaborative, and open work environment”


One way for Boehringer Ingelheim to ensure more people and animals in Japan stay healthy for longer is to make sure that its business can continue over the long term.

“We are a family-owned company, and our board is always thinking about how best to sustain the company for the future,” he says. “We plan in generations for generations.”

The company globally has aligned itself with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is serious about reducing its impact on the environment. It has committed itself to becoming carbon neutral globally by 2030 under its own initiative, “Sustainable Development — for Generations”.

In Japan, at Boehringer Ingelheim’s plant in Yamagata, construction of a new energy centre — using a cogeneration system — is already underway to make it more sustainable. Once it is complete, the site’s carbon emissions are expected to drop by approximately 21% annually. The firm is also planning to build a new production facility next to the plant.

“We talk a lot about sustainability at the level of production, but we also have to provide product sustainability,” explains Aono. “The pandemic has made the importance of reliable supply chains clear, so we think that having this upgraded facility here can help us to supply not only Japan but, potentially, also the rest of Asia, as well as Oceania.”

Aono believes that the firm’s top-down goals are best achieved by bottom-up innovation. So, he insists on engaging with his employees to get their ideas about how to move towards greater sustainability.

“Because we’re working remotely, we can involve people from Hokkaido to Kyushu in these open discussions, and our employees have already suggested a number of good ideas,” he says. “The other good thing is that they get to understand SDGs more deeply and have the chance to consider what they are doing well and what they need to improve.”


Another essential element for the sustainability of Boehringer Ingelheim is a diverse staff, actively engaged in an inclusive culture. The firm has come to understand that this is the best way forward for its business, its people, and the communities where it works.

“We support a diverse, collaborative, and open work environment,” says Aono. “We believe that we must have diversity and inclusion together; they cannot be separated. Diversity without inclusion equals a toxic culture with divisions, and inclusion without diversity leads to stagnation and predictability.”

A company-wide goal is diversity in each of the three Gs: gender, geography, and generations. It aims to have its leadership teams made up of 30% women, 30% different cultural backgrounds, and 30% from Generation Y. The Japan executive team has so far exceeded this diversity ambition in the areas of women and cultural backgrounds.

“Diversity and inclusion is a never-ending process, which we need to continually be working on,” he says. “We’re in good shape right now. But we’re never going to stop improving.”