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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.

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Benedict Heng, Founder of Mr. Farmer

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Benedict Heng is bringing back the ‘kampong’ days of having the Ho Liao (good ingredients) for Ho Jiak (good tasting) food.

What’s your story?
I’m Ben from Mr. Farmer. Mr. Farmer is an online grocer dedicated to supplying the freshest produce to our customers. We believe in sustainable and ethical farming. Since a young age, I have always been an avid food lover (especially meats), developing a strong interest in all things delicious. That is why I ventured into the F&B industry, working as a junior cook for 3 years.

Midway through my career, I made a move to the finance industry to pursue monetary rewards. I dove into high-risk investments and I made lots of money from these investments. However, the good fortune did not last long and all these came crashing down when I suffered a tremendous loss. This coincided with the time that I had just started my own family and it was a huge blow to me both materially and mentally. It was this crash that made me realize that this life wasn’t for me. I went on a hiatus and eventually, it was only through the strong support from my family that I managed to tide over this tough episode.

I went back to help the family business and this was how Mr Farmer came about. My family has been in the food industry for many decades and one thing they noticed from years of experience is that sustainable farming practices are not as developed as in Europe. This is why through Mr Farmer, we hope that we can provide the best quality products to families out there who want the best ingredients for their loved ones.

What excites you most about your industry?
Delicious and wholesome food excites me. I believe food is a critical component of life and it brings people together. The opportunity to serve the community with fresh produce for a healthy life, that brings me joy.

I feel that there is still so much more we can do to improve the quality of food and bring it to the masses. One of the key components of ensuring greater quality of food is to support ethical and sustainable farming. Due to commercialization and urbanization, most farming practices these days are no longer the way they were in the old “kampong” times. Shortcuts are taken, standards are compromised, all in the name of profit. At Mr. Farmer, profit is important too but we want to focus on the concept of One Welfare – sustainable farming directly impacts our health. Our vision is to bring back the ‘kampong’ days of having the Ho Liao (good ingredients) for Ho Jiak (good tasting) food.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore. I call Singapore my home as it’s where my family and close friends are. I also travel frequently to Malaysia and APAC for work.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
It’s definitely Singapore. There is just so much this tiny city can offer! Singapore has been globally recognized for its top-notch business environment providing its residents with developed infrastructure, political stability and excellent connectivity. These factors have given us an outstanding support system for businesses to strive.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Surround yourself with people that inspire you, challenge you to rise higher, make you better and, keep them in your life.

Who inspires you?
I draw inspiration from my uncle, who is the head of both the family and business. He takes care of our family matters at home and manages hundreds of employees at work. Handling both the family and business side of things can be tricky, but he has shown me that success can be sustainable and done with a conscience. His guiding philosophy of handling business and family is simply, to have a big heart.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Even just one day of separation from the day the meat is slaughtered, makes a world of difference to its flavour.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I have come to learn that awareness is the beginning of everything. If I had my time again, I would have probably spent more time figuring out who I truly am and with that self-awareness, begun to lead my life with more purpose and meaning.

How do you unwind?
I like to spend my free time sipping white coffee at my favourite coffee place. I enjoy taking in the surrounding sights and letting my mind wander freely. It allows me to unwind and gain clarity at the same time. It also helps me organize my thoughts to prepare for the week ahead.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
It would be Bangkok as the people there are genuinely friendly and hospitable. They say people are what defines the city and I couldn’t agree more with this. I also enjoy the ‘laid back’ vibe of Bangkok. Not to mention Bangkok has all the good food and awesome shopping choices too!

Everyone in business should read this book:
“Spin selling” by Neil Reckham. It’s an amazing book that teaches you a process designed to help you successfully sell your products and services to business buyers.

Shameless plug for your business:
We at Mr. Farmer have the best tasting meats in Singapore, do a blind test and you will know why it’s Michelin chefs’ preferred choice. Not only are we very confident about the taste, we are also proud to say that all our products are chemical, hormone and antibiotic free. We also focus a lot on supporting ethical and sustainable farming practices believing in the ‘One Welfare’ concept. Do check us out if you enjoy good quality food like us!

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

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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Zac Chua, Founder & CEO of The Kettle Gourmet

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Zac Chua’s popcorn business validated itself straight away and fast tracked him to the startup world. Zac now employs 11 people and shifts 500 bags of popcorn daily.

What’s your story?
It’s a crazy one. It was an accidental startup. If you think about it, no university graduate would ever dream of becoming a popcorn seller. We crashed our first tech event to validate our idea and it took off from there. I bought a logo for $7 from a designers marketplace, printed some cheap name cards, and built a 1 page landing page. Sales started pouring in and eventually, we were serving B2B clients (corporate pantries) and we have never looked back. Today we move about 500 bags daily, we have 11 employees and we are growing. Talk about a validation that worked in our favour.

What excites you most about your industry?
It’s food! Everybody loves food! In Singapore the F&B scene is brutally competitive and it spurs me on to fight and compete for market share and to prove to myself that I can do it. It keeps me going and I won’t stop until we become the market leader.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Singapore, and have traveled to most of Southeast Asia.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore! Even though Singapore has a high cost of living, the Government is actually very supportive of startups. They provide grants for us to tap into, and the technological infrastructure makes it possible for us to compete on a global scale. I believe if you can succeed in your business in Singapore, you can succeed in most of Southeast Asia.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
You only need to be right once, and the rest is history.

Who inspires you?
My father, who was a VC. In fact he was the one who gave me the best piece of advice which I shared above. Having one successful exit, he showed me that it’s okay to fail a million times – all it takes is just one time for you to win in business and in life.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The power of compounding.

  • Mary and John are the same age.
  • Mary saves $2k annually from the age of 19-25 – so she puts $14k into her portfolio
  • John saves $2k annually from the age of 26-65 – so he puts $80k into his portfolio, but 7 years after Mary.
  • If both are able to generate 10% per annum, who would have more at age 65?
  • John of course! But how much more?
  • Mary will have $944,641 whilst John will have $973,704
  • Think about it! Mary puts in only $14k but John delays for 7 years and puts in $80k.

CRAZY RIGHT!?!?

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Nothing, my mistakes taught me how to become a better me. But if I really must choose, I’d say take more time to find the right business partner.

How do you unwind?
Poker, Mahjong and Dota 2.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Vietnam! Things are cheap, people are warm and friendly, and their coffee fills up my life. I would love to retire there if possible.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The richest man in Babylon

Shameless plug for your business:
We don’t need a plug. Just try our competitors and you’ll understand why!

How can people connect with you?
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chuazongyou
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/zacchua

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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