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Biotech In Singapore

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SINGAPORE, Asia – While Singapore has attracted international attention as a growing global biomedical sciences (BMS) hub, important questions remain about the sustainability of its fledgeling biotech community, and how the multidisciplinary activity of scientists in different institutions can be bridged to bring innovative ideas to fruition. Singapore, a small island-nation of five million inhabitants, has made several efforts over the past decade in this direction. At the turn of the century in 2000, the Singapore government pledged to spend S$6 billion over 5 years to kickstart a BMS initiative that included building of key infrastructure such as the Biopolis science park, establishment of new research centres, and attracting large pharmaceutical multi-national corporations (MNCs) to set up their Asian headquarters here.

Having identified the BMS sector as an integral part of a knowledge-based economy crucial to Singapore’s competitiveness in the 21st century, government spending on R&D has now increased to S$16.1 billion for phase 3 of the BMS initiative from 2011 to 2015, with the aim of “capturing opportunities for greater economic and health impact”.

After a decade of investment in the biomedical sciences sector, employment in public and private organisations has doubled to over 5,000 in 2010, which together spend more than S$1.3 billion annually on biomedical R&D. More than 30 of the world’s leading biomedical sciences companies, for example GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, and Sanofi-Aventis, have set up base in Singapore, growing the nation’s biopharmaceutical industry by more than 30% in 2011. Many of these major biotech companies have invested heavily in Singapore, such as Abbott’s S$450 million investment to establish a nutritional manufacturing plant locally. Singapore’s biomedical manufacturing output has quadrupled from S$6 billion to $23.3 billion in the last 10 years and is now 5% of the nation’s GDP.

Sustainability

Singapore’s strategy of attracting and leveraging foreign direct investment from global MNCs has previously worked for industries such as petrochemicals, electronics and ICT. However, the biotechnology industry is a different beast, by nature being reliant upon scientific research, which is high-risk and unpredictable.

The typical development pattern of successful and thriving biotech ecosystems elsewhere in the world has involved the organic growth of start-up clusters spun out from leading research universities, which gradually attracted venture capital funding. This ground-up model of innovation stands in stark contrast to Singapore’s government-led approach of pouring money into catalyzing start-up activity. The Technology Incubation Scheme (TIS) by the National Research Foundation (NRF) is an example of a government-funded programme to encourage start-up activity. So just how well is Singapore’s young biotech industry doing and how sustainable is it?

Shortly after the global financial crisis in 2008, public sector research funding was cut by 30% and requirements were put in place that funding be channelled towards research that could be commercialized, in order to realize returns on government investment. Several international scientists, who had been attracted to Singapore by its relatively generous research funding in the early years, upped and left in apparent reaction to the change in funding priorities.

This leads us to several other key questions: Is our nascent biotech industry vulnerable to changes in government policies? Can we transition away from government support and continue to flourish?

Bridging communities to ignite the entrepreneurial spirit 

Turning our attention to the start-up scene within the wider biotech community, another key issue emerges. An essential component of a thriving biotech ecosystem is communication between academic scientists, industry professionals, and business minds. An inspection of the main public research hubs in Singapore, such as A*STAR (the government-funded Agency for Science, Technology and Research), NUS (National University of Singapore), NTU (Nanyang Technological University), amongst others, reveals healthy levels of interest from young scientists in biotech entrepreneurship.

Most entities have at least one student- or postdoc-led entrepreneurship society that organizes educational workshops covering all the key aspects of starting up a company, from writing a business plan to understanding patent laws and attracting funding. The commercialization arms of these key players appear to be chock full of intellectual property (IP) ready for use, either to be licensed by established companies or by enthusiastic scientists keen to strike out on their own and spin out a startup. Why then does it seem as though biotech start-up activity in Singapore is not as dynamic as it could be?

Anecdotal evidence indicates that a large proportion of the IP remains unused and scientists prefer to remain in the ivory tower of academia with its security net, instead of venturing out into a world of unknowns inherent in starting up a company. If this is indeed the case, more incentives are needed to encourage academics to take the leap. One possibility could be to give inventors full ownership of their IP, a motivation to bring their innovation to market.

Importantly, scientific innovation alone is not sufficient to spin out successful biotech startups. Young and bright scientists need to meet their counterparts in the business world, who are trained in finance, accounting and marketing, in order to spark motivation for entrepreneurial activity and to make things happen. Academics need to meet industry partners to better understand the latter’s needs so as to research solutions to their problems. Despite the country’s small size, Singapore’s various biotech-related entities can feel surprisingly uncommunicative.

With an overview of the state of play in Singapore’s biotech ecosystem, we are launching OBR-Singapore to bring together the different threads of activity. Starting with OBR-Singapore’s launch event, a panel discussion about the Future of Biotech in Singapore: Towards a Self-Sustaining System, we wish to give everyone a chance to participate in an exciting conversation about how we can determine the future of our industry.

Moreover, we seek to bridge the many players in Singapore’s fledgeling biotech scene, from scientists to young business minds at Singapore Management University (SMU) and INSEAD, as well as experienced industry professionals through organisations such as BioSingapore and ETPL. We will be organising workshops and events centred on how we can use the vast amounts of IP in Singapore to address pressing biomedical issues. By bridging the different communities within our ecosystem, OBR-Singapore aims to boost interest in biotech entrepreneurship and to put in place cross-institutional opportunities to move ideas forward.

by David Tan,David is a postdoctoral fellow at the A*STAR Institute of Medical Biology studying adult stem cells of the mammary gland and the skin in the everyday maintenance of tissue and their possible role in cancer. He obtained a BSc in Biochemistry at Imperial College London before completing a PhD in Genetics at the University of Cambridge. He has previously written for Oxbridge Biotech.

Callum Connects

Agnes Yee, Legal & Compliance Recruiter of Space Executive

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Agnes Yee started Space Executive in Singapore, which is a hub for businesses in some of the world’s fastest growing economies.

What’s your story?
After graduation, I joined a design media company as a Business Development Executive, during the era when ‘reading a magazine online’ was unheard of. I believe that laid the foundation for being unfazed by rejections.

I fell into recruitment pre-GFC and rode the highs and lows in the early years. A decade later, I decided to set up my own recruitment company, partly because I could. I’m acutely aware of the face that being an Asian female in Singapore is sometimes a privilege, and that many women in the world are living a very different existence.
Thereafter, we joined Space Executive as part of a merger. I am currently the Partner of Space Executive, a recruitment company focused specialist disciplines, including Legal, Finance, Digital, Sales and Marketing and Change. We also run Space Ventures, a venture capital business, which invests in seed and pre-series A businesses.

What excites you most about your industry?
On a daily basis, we’re influencing how one spends a third of their day. It is interesting how the Internet has transformed the industry, and I’m excited to see how we can harness technology to bring us to the next phase of this business.

The VC is an extension of applying our skills and experience in reading people. We very much invest in the people as much as the idea. Being a native Singaporean, it’s been exhilarating watching Southeast Asia becoming a hotbed of ideas; and young entrepreneurs simply daring to dream.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m a born and bred Singaporean. I love that I speak both English and Mandarin, grew up playing with Indian friends and eating Malay food.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore for the low barriers of entry to set up a business, but has to be China (and Hong Kong) for their hunger and constant innovation.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
青春不要留白 which translates to ‘Don’t waste your youth.’

Who inspires you?
Anyone who has gone against the grain.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
It wasn’t recent but reading the article on https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/12/the-tail-end.html never fails to blow my mind how little time we have left. Charting our lives in weeks, and realising I only have enough time left to enjoy 60 Christmas turkeys, read 300 books (all if I’m lucky); and mostly, I’m left with the last 5% of the time that I spend in-person with my parents.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I’m cognisant that every decision I made in life has brought me to where I am today, and I wouldn’t change one thing. But I’d really like to have had more time to travel.

How do you unwind?
Exercise and wine.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Trekking any mountain in Asia. It brings us back to the most basic. To overcome elements of nature and our own mind.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Start with Why, Simon Sinek

Shameless plug for your business:
Space Executive started in Singapore, a hub for businesses in some of the world’s fastest growing economies. We assist organisations in accessing a targeted and specialised, and often times transient talent pool.

Out of Singapore, we have recruited across 14 countries; and have embarked on our global expansion plans with offices in Hong Kong and London this year, and US, Japan and Europe in the following years.

Space Ventures provides funding, management and financial guidance to young businesses with original ideas. We have invested in peer to peer lending platforms, credit scoring, social media education, and other start-ups spanning diverse industries. We are always interested in hearing more about new ideas.

How can people connect with you?
https://www.linkedin.com/in/agnesyee/

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Chrystie Dao-Szabo, Founder of iPayMy

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Chrystie Dao-Szabo founded iPaymy for Business – a secure and easy to use
platform enabling SMEs to pay rent, salaries, invoices, and even corporate tax using the credit cards they already have in their wallet today.

What’s your story?
I’m Chrystie Dao-Szabo, and I’ve worked as an international banker for over 22 years. During that time, I travelled through Asia, Australia and Europe, and everywhere I saw how my clients struggled with managing their finances and keeping cash around.

I wanted to use my experience to help them, but I also knew the solution they needed didn’t exist yet. This pushed me to give up on my secure career, and instead look into the innovative world of FinTech for an answer.

This is how I founded iPaymy – at its launch, a platform to help consumers pay their monthly expenses using their credit cards. We’ve grown a lot since, and today, iPaymy for Business is a platform that allows business owners to use their credit cards to pay for rent, salaries, invoices and taxes, freeing up their cash for business-critical operations.

What excites you most about your industry?
What excites me most about FinTech is it’s culture of constant disruption, thanks to cool and innovative products and services coming out every day.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Vietnam, grew up in Australia and worked in Asia, Europe and Australia. Being raised by traditional Vietnamese parents meant that deep down I was still an Asian at heart, so I have a strong connection with the region.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore of course. It’s easy to do business, English is the main language, and the infrastructures like public transportation are great. Also, the government supports local innovation in multiple ways, like giving grants for SMEs and FinTechs.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Keep giving, and one day you will receive.

Who inspires you?
My parents. My father had a successful business in Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon in 1975. After the war, my father was sent to a re-education camp for three years, which meant my mum had to bring up two young kids – a 3-year-old, me and my 4-year old brother on her own.

In 1980, we all fled Vietnam on a boat and arrived in Sydney, Australia via refugee camps in Indonesia and Singapore. There, my parents had to start over with nothing to their names and only AUD 50 given to them by the Australian government.
They went on to build several businesses in Australia!

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The number of young and smart people who have carved out successful careers by founding their own startups (or joining really cool ones). When I was starting out my career, doing any of these was not a viable option; it was either working for an accounting firm, an insurance company or a bank.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
If I were starting out my career now, I would choose the path of joining a startup as you get to learn so much about running a business and how to assemble a winning team.

How do you unwind?
I like travelling to a beach or a resort destination and just relaxing by the pool or beach. I also like to unwind after work with a glass of champagne or wine, and a bowl of truffle fries.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Thailand. I love the people and the spicy Thai food.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The E-Myth. It’s a book series that dismantles common myths about entrepreneurship in different industries.

Shameless plug for your business:
With iPaymy for Business, SMEs can pay rent, salaries, invoices, and even corporate tax using the credit cards they already have in their wallet today. SMEs love iPaymy because it works like a credit card, but pays like cash.

iPaymy’s secure and easy to use platform reliably delivers payments to vendors while freeing up cash and providing access to interest free credit. Forget the delays and aggravations that come with traditional SME financing options. Schedule recurring payments, manage invoices, set payment reminders, and monitor payment status all from one dashboard.

It’s never been easier for SMEs to meet monthly payment obligations while keeping cash available to fuel growth, bridge receivable gaps, and make immediate investment in the supplies, services, and expertise needed to drive a growing business forward.

How can people connect with you?
You can find me on LinkedIn or contact me by email.
My LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chrystiedaoszabo/
My email: [email protected]

Twitter handle?
https://twitter.com/ceedeees

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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