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Esco CEO Lin Xiangqian started from zero before taking over family's life sciences tech firm

Mr Lin, now 32, did not get any special treatment when he started helping out at the family business at the age of 13. "I learnt a lot as I started working from the ground up. That got me really involved in the nuts and bolts and details of the compa
Mr Lin, now 32, did not get any special treatment when he started helping out at the family business at the age of 13. "I learnt a lot as I started working from the ground up. That got me really involved in the nuts and bolts and details of the company," he says.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

CEO of life sciences tech firm Esco started out as office boy and has led it to new heights

When Mr Lin Xiangqian started helping out at the family business at the tender age of 13, he did not get special treatment, even though he was expected to succeed his father and lead the firm, Esco Group.

"Although I was still in school then, at Raffles Institution, my father, who founded Esco in 1978, was very far-sighted with his succession planning," said Mr Lin, 32, Esco's president and chief executive. "So I started coming to the office to get exposed to the family business."

And right off the bat, he was thrown into the thick of things at the life sciences technology firm, which is now a global brand in the field of medical and laboratory equipment, such as biosafety cabinets and lab incubators.

"I started with miscellaneous tasks in the office, really no more than just an office boy, before I was given an actual position as the IT (information technology) manager. I can still remember one day when our server broke down and I had to teach myself how to fix it," Mr Lin said.

"Later on, when I was around 17, I became responsible for Esco's export sales and marketing. All this while I had to juggle between my work and studies, of course."

Now, over four years after Mr Lin formally assumed the role of Esco chief executive in 2011, he looks back at those hectic years with satisfaction and appreciation.

"I learnt a lot as I started working from the ground up. That got me really involved in the nuts and bolts and details of the company."

With that wealth of experience as a stepping stone, Mr Lin has led Esco through one breakthrough after another.

Just last week, the group announced that it has received clearance from the United States Food and Drug Administration for the commercial distribution of Miri TL, an in-vitro fertilisation incubator for embryo development.

The roll-out is part of Esco's strategy to focus on unmet but growing medical needs. One such area is women's health and the company is investing heavily into related research and development.

"One of the unsolved problems we're working on is this: About 10 per cent of mothers deliver their children preterm. The physicians need a way to accurately predict which woman is at a higher risk of preterm labour," Mr Lin said.

"So earlier this year, we created a start-up company, Carmentix, to discover new biomarkers that can predict the risks of preterm birth. This will enable physicians to apply intervention treatment.

"The medical costs treating preterm births in the US are around US$30 billion (S$41 billion) a year, so we are gunning for a multibillion-dollar market here."

The research project is the result of the Esco Ventures initiative that Mr Lin launched in 2014, when he set aside funding to either acquire or launch start-ups with life sciences and medical technology innovations. In the current phase, Esco is ready to fund five ventures with up to $5 million each.

Meanwhile, business has been very good for the company. Esco commands an annual turnover of around $100 million and has offices in close to 20 countries. Its sales are almost entirely overseas, with only a single-digit percentage of contribution from within Singapore.

All this is thanks to Esco's transition into the life sciences sector in 2000, a decision which Mr Lin had a part in making. "When my parents started the company, it was mainly a domestic supplier of clean rooms and equipment for electronics manufacturing multinationals, primarily the disc-drive sector, which was then still booming in Singapore."

But sensing the winds of change, Esco followed the nation's shift towards the more knowledge-intensive industries, while growing its business beyond these shores.

Mr Lin and his team have not looked back since and he hopes other Singapore companies will show this sort of gumption amid these trying times.

"There are a lot of local companies facing very strong headwinds now. But as the Chinese saying goes, a crisis is also an opportunity.

"If they can transform, just as we did 15 years ago when we decided to get out of our core business and make a bet on the future, I think they can thrive. Innovation and transformation - that is absolutely the way forward."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2016, with the headline 'Beginning from zero to taking over family business'. Print Edition | Subscribe