SME Spotlight

Innovating to serve medical sector better

Mr Lau says Inzign has carved out a niche for itself by focusing on manufacturing exclusively for the medical device industry and supplying to start-ups.
Mr Lau says Inzign has carved out a niche for itself by focusing on manufacturing exclusively for the medical device industry and supplying to start-ups.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

The medical device sector has traditionally been dominated by large incumbents, but local medical and healthcare device manufacturer Inzign is on track to making its mark. In the third of a four-part series about small firms with disruptive technologies, Mr Steven Lau, director of product development, tells Chia Yan Min about the company's expansion plans.

Q How did the company start?

A It started 35 years ago as a tool-making company that went by another name. It then went on to design plastic injection moulds.

Back then, it served all kinds of industries.

But about 20 years ago, the company shifted towards serving only the medical industry.

The medical industry is more stable and requires more precision - it's an area we can compete in as a Singapore company. Our costs are high and labour is in short supply.

The company was renamed Inzign - which stands for innovation and design - about 15 years ago.

We're now a contract manufacturer serving the medical industry - unlike our peers, who might also work with industries like automotive and consumer electronics.

Q How have you sought to grow the business in recent years?

A We have been serving the medical therapeutic industry, supplying drug delivery devices such as inhalers, injection devices, disposables and transfusion devices.

In the last few years, we've identified medical diagnostics as a key growth area, and have started putting resources there and investing in equipment. These include plastic disposables used in drawing blood and in blood tests, for instance.

We found that the big pharmaceutical companies have very established supplier bases, so it would be very tough for us to break into the market. Instead, we identified some start-ups - which are open to new suppliers - as possible targets.

We were also approached by ETPL, the commercialisation arm of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star). They had been working in the area of microfluidics, which is the science of manipulating and controlling very small amounts of fluids.

ETPL said the industry has good prospects and asked if we were interested in exploring opportunities.

We see microfluidics devices as next-generation diagnostics products. For instance, existing blood tests need about 5ml of blood. But with microfluidics, the sample size comes down tremendously - just a drop, or about 0.5ml, is needed.

This is a new area, so there are few established players; people are still coming up with new ideas.

Q How did you start venturing into the microfluidics space?

A ETPL linked us up with the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech), which had ready microfluidics technology.

We signed a technology licensing deal with ETPL to produce these devices. SIMTech helped with readying the devices for large-scale manufacturing, while we brought in the machinery and set up the production line. Besides supplying the technology, SIMTech also introduced some customers to us.

We have invested more than $2 million in new production facilities for microfluidics, and are at different stages of the innovation and production process with various customers. Examples of microfluidics devices the company is working on include 3D cell culture tools, testing chips for the Zika virus as well as cell separation chips.

We're beginning to see some progress, with some devices going into production this year, so we should see returns from the investments we have made. We expect strong demand for the 3D cell culture tools and cell separation chips this year.

Q How big is the company?

A We operate three production facilities - two of them here and one in Batam to take advantage of the lower overheads there. We have 110 staff members in Singapore and 30 to 40 in Batam.

But the technical expertise - engineers and managers - is all here. In Batam, we just operate a skeleton production crew.

We tend to be a little bit choosy about which customers we work for; not all products are suitable for us. We operate clean rooms and we have a certain cost structure.

Some customers might prefer lower-cost service providers. We made $19 million in revenue last year and expect to do $23 million this year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2017, with the headline 'Innovating to serve medical sector better'. Print Edition | Subscribe