Biomed industry keeps manufacturing in the pink

The biomedical sciences industry, nurtured by the Economic Development Board, is a key pillar of Singapore's economy. With 1% of the resident workforce in it accounting for 4% of gross domestic product in 2013, it punches well above its weight. Arti Mulchand profiles some of the people working in it.

When it comes to the health of Singapore's manufacturing output, it is the biomedical sciences industry that keeps it in the pink.

The industry, which includes the biopharmaceutical and medical technology sectors, had a total manufacturing output of $23.7 billion last year.

One of the fastest growing areas within the industry is biopharmaceutical manufacturing, or the creation of drugs, which employs about 6,000 people.

Seven in 10 of the world's top pharmaceutical companies manufacture in Singapore, with more than 60 commercial-scale biomedical facilities.

With Asia's increasing affluence and ageing population continuing to drive the demand for effective medicines, more will come.

The vision of the Economic Development Board (EDB) is for Singapore to become home to best-in-class plants, making the highest value-added products, says Mr Kevin Lai, the board's director for biomedical sciences and consumer business.

An area of particular promise is biologics, in which drugs are made by biological means. This sector is expected to add up to 1,000 new jobs in the next three to four years.

In 2012, biologics made up 15 per cent of the global pharmaceutical market. By 2019, it has been predicted that the global biologic drug market will jump to over US$220 billion (S$276 billion).

Considering that the first biologics plant here was established only in 2007, huge strides have been made in a short time.

In the past five years alone, nine biologics facilities, representing about $2.7 billion in total investments, have been established in Singapore.

Several key EDB initiatives target biologics, including a combined $25 million being committed to two schemes, the Development and Apprenticeship (DNA) and the Biologics Overseas Skills Training (Boost) programmes.

DNA will develop more than 300 Singaporean specialists and Boost, launched in February with the Singapore Workforce Development Agency and Temasek Polytechnic, will add another 150 to the talent pool.

Since 2009, EDB has also supported the training of more than 300 Singaporeans at overseas biologics companies.

"Biologics is a burgeoning sector in Asia and the rest of the world. EDB's implementation of programmes to train manpower in advance is testament to the confidence we have in the growth of this sector and the demand for skilled Singaporeans to take on these jobs," says Mr Lai.

But even as biologics is rising, the bedrock of the sector is still "small molecule" drugs, or chemical-based drugs like Paracetemol.

They make up over 90 per cent of the drugs on the global market, and more than 15 of the 29 major pharmaceutical plants in Singapore produce such drugs. With EDB's support, advances are being made in production processes.

British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline GSK, for instance, has greened its production of Amoxicillin, a widely used antibiotic.

In 2012, it announced an investment of up to $60 million to produce the drug here using enzymes, a process involving fewer steps and fewer organic solvents.

Such initiatives mean that being a part of the sector is always challenging and that you are at the cutting-edge, says Mr Lai.

It also means a job with a strong sense of purpose, he adds.

"You play a significant role in the critical final step in the production of life-saving therapies."

This article was first published on June 2, 2014