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Biotech In Singapore



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.


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

Benjamin Kwan, Co-Founder of TravelClef



Making music to create a life for his family, Benjamin Kwan, started an online tuition portal and his music business grew from there.

What’s your story?
I am Benjamin and I’m the Co-Founder of TravelClef Group Pte Ltd, a travelling music school that conducts music classes in companies as well as team building with music programmes. We also run an online educational platform which matches private students to freelance music teachers. We also manufacture our own instruments. I started this company in 2011 when I was still a freshman at NUS, majoring in Mechanical Engineering.

I was born to a lower income family, my father drove a taxi and was the sole breadwinner to a family of 7. I have always dreamed of becoming rich so that I could lessen the burden placed on my father and give my family a good life.

After working really hard in my first semester at NUS, my results didn’t reflect the hard work and effort I put in. At the same time, I was left with just $42 in my bank account and it suddenly dawned on me that if I were to graduate with mediocre results, I would probably end up with a mediocre salary as well. I knew I had to do something to gain control of my future.

During that summer break, I read a book “Internet Riches” by Scott Fox and I knew that the only way I could ever start my own business with my last $42 would be to start an online business. That was how our online tuition portal started and after taking 4 days to learn Photoshop and website building on my own, I started the business.

What excites you most about your industry?
Music itself is a constant form of excitement to me as I have always been an avid lover of music. As one of the world’s first travelling music schools, we are always very eager and excited to find innovative ways to a very traditional business model of a music teaching.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore and I love the fact that despite our diversity in culture, there’s always a common language that we share, music.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hands down, SINGAPORE! Although we are currently in talks to expand to other regions within Asia, Singapore is the best place for business. I have had friends asking me if they should consider venturing into entrepreneurship in Singapore, my answer is always a big fat YES! There’s a low barrier of entry, and most importantly, the government is very supportive of entrepreneurship.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
I have been blessed by many people and mentors who constantly give me great advice but right now, I would say the best piece of advice that I received would be from Dr Patrick Liew who said, “Work on the business, not in it.” This advice is constantly ringing in my head as I work towards scaling the business.

Who inspires you?
My dad. My dad has always been my inspiration in life, for the amount of sacrifices that he has made for the family and the love he has for us. He was the umbrella for all the storms that my family faced and we were always safe in his shelter. Although my dad passed away after a brief fight with colorectal cancer, the lessons that he imparted to me were very valuable as I build my own family and business.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
You can not buy time, but you can spend money to save time! With this realisation, I was willing to allow myself to spend some money, in order to save more time. Like taking Grab/Uber to shuttle around instead of spending time travelling on public transport. While I spend more money on travelling, I save a lot more time! This doesn’t mean that I spend lavishly and extravagantly, I am still generally prudent with my money.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have taken more time to spend with my family and especially my father. While it is important to focus our time to build our businesses, we should always try our best to allocate family time. Because as an entrepreneur, there is no such thing as “after I finish my work,” because our work is never finished. If our work finishes, the business is also finished. But our time with our family is always limited and no matter how much money and how many successes we achieve, we can never use it to trade back the time we have with our family.

How do you unwind?
I am a very simple man. I enjoy TV time with my wife and a simple dinner with my family and friends.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Batam, it’s close to Singapore and there’s really nothing much to do except for massages and a relaxing resort life. If I travel to other countries for shopping or sightseeing, I am constantly thinking of business and how I can possibly expand to the country I am visiting. But while relaxing at the beach or at a massage, I tend to allow myself to drift into emptiness and just clear my mind of any thoughts.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Work The System, by Sam Carpenter. This book teaches entrepreneurs the importance of creating systems and how to leverage on systems to improve productivity and create more time.

Shameless plug for your business:
If you are looking for a team building programme that your colleagues will enjoy and your bosses will be happy with, you have to consider our programmes at TravelClef! While our programmes are guaranteed fun and engaging, it is also equipped with many team building deliverables and organizational skills.

How can people connect with you?
My email is [email protected] and I am very active on Facebook as well!

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:
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Before you enter a Startup or before you choose your founding team or new hires read, “Entering Startupland” by Jeff Bussgang



Before you enter a Startup or before you choose your founding team or new hires read “Entering Startupland” by Jeff Bussgang.

Jeff knows how to spot and groom good culture, as the book session was held in Zestfinance a company he invested in and now, “The Best Workplaces for Women” and for “The Best Workplaces for Tech”, by Fortune.

These are the questions during the Book Launch.

How to know if a hire including the founder is Startup material?
Jeff says to watch for these qualities.

First, do the hires think like an owner?
Second, do the hires test the limits, to see how things can it be done better?
Are they problem solvers and are biased toward action?
Do they like managing uncertainty and being comfortable with uncertainty? And comfortable with rapid decision-making?
Are they comfortable with flexible enough to take in a series of undefined roles and task?

How do we know if we are simply too corporate to be startup?

Corporate mindsets more interested in going deep into a particular functional area? These corporate beings are more comfortable with clear and distinct lines of responsibility, control, and communication? They are more hesitant or unable to put in the extra effort because “it’s not my job”.

If you do still want to enter a startup despite the very small gains at the onset, Jeff offers a few key considerations on how to pick a right one.

He suggests you pick a city as each city has a different ecosystems stakeholders and funding sources and market strengths. You have to invest in the ecosystem and this is your due diligence. Understand it so you can find the best match when it arises.
Next, to pick a domain, research and solidify your understanding with every informational interview and discussion you begin. Then, pick a stage you are willing to enter at. They are usually 1)in the Jungle, 2) the Dirt Road or 3) the Highway. The Jungle has 1-50 staff and no clear path with distractions everywhere and very tough conditions. The Dirt Road gets clearer but is definitely bumpy and windy. Well the Highway speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

Finally Please – Pick a winner!

Ask people on the inside – the Venture Capitalists, the lawyers, the recruiters and evaluate the team quality like any venture capitalists would. Would you want to work for the team again and again? And is the startup working in a massive market? Is there a clear recurring business model?

After you have picked a winning team and product, how would you get in through the door?

You need to know that warm introductions have to be done. That’s the way to get their attention. Startups value relationships and people as they need social capital to grow. If you have little experience or seemingly irrelevant experience, go bearing a gift. Jeff shared a story of a young ambitious and bright candidate with no tech experience who went and did a thorough customer survey of the users of the startup she intended to work with. She came with point-of-view and presented her findings, and they found in her, what they needed at that stage. She became their Director of Growth. Go in with the philosophy of adding value-add you can get any job you want.

And as any true advisor would do, Jeff did not mince his words, when he reminded the audience that, “If you can’t get introduced you may not be resourceful enough to be in startup.”

Startupland is not a Traditional Career or Learning Cycles

Remember to see your career stage as a runs of 5 years, 8 or 10 – it is not a life long career. In Startup land consider each startup as a single career for you.

Douglas Merrill, founder of Zestfinance added from his hard-earned experience that retention is a challenge. Startup Leaders to keep your people, do help them with the quick learning cycles. Essentially from Jungle to Dirt road, the transition can be rapid and so each communication model that starts and exists, gets changed quickly. Every twelve months, the communication model will have no choice but to break down and you have to reinvent the communication model. Be ready as a founder and be ready as a member of the startup.

Another suggestion was to have no titles for first two years. So that everyone was hands-on and also able to move as one entity.

Effective Startupland Leaders paint a Vision of the Future yet unseen.

What I really enjoyed and resonated with as a coach and psychologist was how Douglas at the 10th hire thought very carefully what he was promising each of his new team member. He was reminded that startups die at their 10th and their 100th hires. He took some mindful down time and reflected. He then wrote a story for each person in his own team and literally wrote out what the company would look like and their individual part in it. In He writing each of the team members’ stories into his vision and giving each person this story, it was a powerful communication piece. He definitely increased the touch points and communication here is the effective startup’s leverage.

Douglas and Jeff both suggested transparency from the onset.

If you think like an owner and if you think of your founding team as problem solvers. Then getting transparent about financials with your team is probably a good idea. As a member of a startup, you should insist on knowing these things
Such skills and domain knowledge will be valuable. There is now historical evidence of people leaving startups and being a successful founder themselves because they were in the financial trenches in their initial startup. Think Paypal and Facebook Mafia.

What drives people to enter a startup?

The whole nature of work is changing. Many are ready to pay to learn. Daniel Pink’s book Drive showed how people are motivated by certain qualities like Mastery, Autonomy and Where your work fits into big picture. Startups do that naturally. There is a huge amount of passion and the quality of team today and as it grows then the quality of company changes.

The Progress principle is in place, why people love their startup jobs is not money rather are my contributions being valued? Do I see a path of progress and do I have autonomy over work and am I treated well?

Find out more about StartupLand on Amazon

And learn from Zestfinance

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