Science Faces

He takes inventions from lab to market

Founder of start-up behind made-in-S'pore HFMD kit helps scientists push out products

Lab scientists may make groundbreaking discoveries or invent wonderful devices that are lifesavers for humankind.

But these may not put bread on the table and the world may never benefit if were not for the efforts of people like Dr Kevin Koh.

The 35-year-old founder of local start-up Vivo Diagnostics spots good innovations, and works with their inventors and scientists to take them from lab to market - a process that can cost millions of dollars and take up to a decade to complete.

His current projects include commercialising a made-in-Singapore hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) test kit.

Current models in the market test for the disease using blood and return results in a few hours. But Dr Koh is in the midst of commercialising a home-use kit that uses saliva and gives the result in 15 minutes. The kit was developed by researchers from Singapore Polytechnic last year.

It is expected to undergo clinical trials at the end of the year.

Dr Koh is the founder of Vivo Diagnostics, which helps researchers commercialise innovations. The 35-year-old is as passionate about music as he is about science and is the co-founder of the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra in Singapore.
Dr Koh is the founder of Vivo Diagnostics, which helps researchers commercialise innovations. The 35-year-old is as passionate about music as he is about science and is the co-founder of the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra in Singapore. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Dr Koh, who founded the start-up in 2013, said his interest in commercialising innovations grew when he was working as an investment director with a medical sciences venture capital fund in Britain.

The company looked at investing in biotech and medtech innovations as well as creating university spin-offs, among others.

"You've got to find the diamond in the rough," he said.

"There are so many universities, research institutions, where do you start? For all you know, it could be a small university that pushes out something incredible."

Vivo Diagnostics focuses on taking to market medical devices that are especially relevant to Asia.

In Singapore, the Ministry of Health has said that HFMD is a common endemic childhood disease and outbreaks can be expected from time to time.

Symptoms of HFMD include mouth ulcers, fever and sore throat. The viral infection is spread by contact with an infected person's bodily fluids.

In May, the number of weekly cases hit a four-year high. While the effects of the virus are usually mild, a more serious strain called EV71 can result in death.

Apart from the HFMD kit, other products in Vivo's pipeline include a sleek deep-cavity surgical lighting device so that surgeons need not wear headlamps when performing surgical procedures.

FINDING THE RIGHT FIT

There are many companies which know the market well, but it can be challenging to find one which appreciates our innovations and believes that they can be further developed and commercialised for the benefit of the community.

DR TAN ENG LEE, centre director of Singapore Polytechnic's Centre for Biomedical and Life Sciences, on finding the right partner. He led the research team that developed the HFMD kit.

Dr Koh is collaborating with the National Cancer Centre Singapore, Singapore General Hospital and the medical division of a large Japanese multinational corporation on this project.

Scientists often start off wanting to achieve research outcomes, without necessarily thinking about what makes "good business".

This is where Dr Koh steps in. Once he sees potential in a product, he advises the scientists on how it should be patented, or whether extra tests are needed before it can be pushed out to the market. The firm also provides the funding needed to take it to market.

Professor Gerry George, dean of the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at Singapore Management University, said that researchers could face multiple issues in trying to take their research beyond the lab.

Most biotech discoveries have few immediate applications, said Prof George, who added: "Consequently, you are looking at a long gestation cycle as well as requiring significant complementary assets to make it work.

"Trying to commercialise these inventions would mean that you are dependent on other partners who have the capabilities to conduct clinical trials, for example."

Dr Tan Eng Lee, centre director of Singapore Polytechnic's Centre for Biomedical and Life Sciences, led the research team that developed the HFMD kit. He said that finding the right partner to commercialise the product is most important.

"There are many companies which know the market well, but it can be challenging to find one which appreciates our innovations and believes that they can be further developed and commercialised for the benefit of the community," said Dr Tan.

Dr Koh said being in this line of work enables him to take more products to market, compared with what he could have done alone as a researcher.

He graduated with a PhD in biomedical engineering at Imperial College London in 2011.

He said: "I specialise in only one field. There would be only a finite number of products I could come up with."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2016, with the headline 'He takes inventions from lab to market'. Print Edition | Subscribe