Biotechnology Start-Ups in Singapore: Inspiring Future Entrepreneurs

Singapore aims to become a global focal point for research and manufacturing activities in the biomedical sciences. It actively promotes biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and health care services businesses in the biomedical sciences industry that engage in knowledge-intensive activities such as discovery research, product development, clinical research, high-tech manufacturing, and regional business functions.

Singapore's first privately funded biotechnology start-up, Lynk Biotechnologies, was established in February 2000 by Professor Lee Chee Wee from the National University of Singapore (NUS) with a S$2 million investment fund. The company has pioneered techniques that can significantly reduce drug development time.

In September 2001, Lynk Biotechnologies announced its discovery of a new class of compounds that are able to cure cancer in mice. When mice were injected once with these new compounds, their tumors disappeared 2 weeks later, with no signs of relapse. The company is currently testing the compounds on mice implanted with human tumors.

Lynk Biotechnologies was co-founded by the BioEnterprise Asia (BEA) Group. Besides Lynk Biotechnologies, the BEA Group currently includes the following companies: AP Genomics, AP Metrix, Biosurfactants, and Receptor Science.

The BEA Group helps life science start-ups identify and develop innovative new technologies, obtain early seed investment, as well as to manage intellectual property issues, thus minimizing the entrepreneur's risk. It also helps start-ups accelerate their business by putting them in touch with strategic international players. The BEA Group is currently considering proposals from several prospective partners to establish a life science investment fund of US$50 million to 100 million. If the fund is established, it will focus on early-stage investment opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region.

Another biotechnology start-up, ES Cell International (ESI), which was established in July 2000, received worldwide attention last year when it was shown to hold six of the human embryonic stem cell lines on the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Stem Cell Registry. These cells were grown from six excess embryos produced during in vitro fertilization treatment of women in Singapore.

In addition to being eligible for inclusion on the NIH Stem Cell Registry, ESI's cell lines have been fully characterized and have been grown in its laboratories for more than 18 months. The company is currently focusing its resources in three therapeutic areas--neurological, cardiovascular, and hematopoetic. It is finding ways to use stem cells for the treatments of various diseases, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Start-up company PhytoProtein Biotech Pte Ltd, also established in 2000, hopes to become the leading Asian-based biomanufacturing facility providing high-quality recombinant proteins using plant cell-based expression systems. Development will be in three stages--the production of antigens for use in diagnostic kits, followed by the production of animal and human vaccines initially targeted at infectious diseases in Asia. As a contract manufacturer, PhytoProtein will also establish production capacity for other recombinant proteins.

Investment by Australian Stock Exchange-listed Biotech International, Ltd. (BIL) has enabled PhytoProtein to commence commercial production of immunogenic recombinant proteins using a proprietary plant cell-based biomanufacturing technology. BIL and its group of companies will also assist in the development and distribution of diagnostic kits for a range of diseases, including meliodosis, malaria, and dengue fever.

One of the biggest challenges faced by biotechnology start-ups in Singapore is getting sufficient funding to keep them going. In the high-risk early stages, start-ups have to rely on 'angel' investors. There is, nevertheless, a growing venture capital environment for biotechnology start-ups in Singapore. At present, there are more than 40 venture capital firms in Singapore with investment interests in biotechnology. Some of these firms are actively seeking out promising biotechnology start-ups. And in 2000, the industry cumulatively raised funds valued at more than S$10 billion.

Besides funding, there are other challenges that a start-up has to face. These include the need to carry out innovative R&D, protection of intellectual property, the long development time before any product reaches the market and is able to generate revenue, market entry, and regulatory issues. Only a few start-ups may have the expertise to deal with the issues concerned.

A survey conducted by the BEA Group shows that there are about 30 bioventures in Singapore. So far, only a handful is demonstrating promise, and Dr. Gurinder Shahi, CEO of the BEA Group, estimates the survival rate of biotechnology start-ups in Singapore will remain at around 30%. Given Singapore's pro-business environment, why do some of these start-ups fail to take-off?

According to Shahi, there are three main reasons for this. Firstly, Singapore came late into the 'game'; secondly, there is a lack of understanding of the ingredients for the life sciences; and third is an inability to respond to changes in the industry. However, Shahi was quick to point out that there are tremendous opportunities and potential for biotechnology start-ups in Singapore. He adds that biotechnology start-ups need a regional outlook in order to succeed, given the fact that the market potential in Singapore is small and limited. In fact these companies should look even beyond Asia.

In order to succeed, biotechnology start-ups in Singapore can focus on early-stage inventions, which do not require regulatory approval and can be developed as drugs by bigger firms elsewhere. This is the approach Lynk Biotechnologies is taking. Besides this, start-ups can focus on some areas where Asia is taking the lead such as researching on new uses for traditional Chinese medicines.

A strong commitment from the government, top-quality research with commercial potential, an excellent physical infrastructure, a good regulatory environment, and a sound intellectual property framework are some of the factors on which biotechnology start-ups in Singapore should capitalize.

Heavy investment by the government in the biomedical sciences has attracted internationally recognized scientists and academic centers of excellence to Singapore. Together with local institutes of higher learning, they play a critical role in developing the research workforce capabilities much needed by the biotechnology start-ups in Singapore.

And by 2003, when Singapore's life sciences hub the Biopolis is ready, start-up companies will be able to keep their operational costs down by taking advantage of the Hub's common facilities.