Questions about whether Singapore is getting bang for its buck in biotech arise from time to time. The chairman of the agency in charge issues a report card.
On May 24, a local biotechnology company successfully raised US$33 million (S$44.8 million) through an initial public offering on the Taipei Exchange (TPEx), valuing the company at US$300 million.
This went largely unnoticed by most of Singapore, but caused ripples of excitement throughout the local biotech and research circles.
The company that listed on the TPEx was none other than a Singapore drug-development biotech, Aslan Pharmaceuticals, which develops therapies for cancer tumour types prevalent in Asia.
Drug development is a high-risk endeavour. The fact that a local biotech has achieved this level of market validation is certainly something for us to be proud of.
Perhaps this is what the Nobel laureate and A*Star (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) senior fellow, Dr Sydney Brenner, envisioned when he first visited Singapore in 1983, to advise the Government on what it would take for this young country to create a biotechnology industry.
Back then, Singapore's biomedical research was practically non-existent. The late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew asked Dr Brenner why Singapore should invest in biomedical sciences (BMS) and biotechnology infrastructure, noting that Singapore was a nation of technicians. Dr Brenner replied candidly: "Prime Minister, if you don't do something like this, you will remain a nation of technicians."
Following this conversation, the Government set up the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), Singapore's first biomedical research institute, in 1985.
In three decades, Singapore has progressed from a humble "nation of technicians" to a leading biomedical hub, with BMS becoming the fourth pillar of the manufacturing sector.
Today, Singapore is home to more than 50 BMS manufacturing plants employing over 19,000 people, with a value add of $15 billion, just a shade behind the top sector, electronics.
In 2015, business expenditure on research and development (Berd) in BMS-related fields had grown by a compound annual growth rate of over 10 per cent in the last decade to reach a high of nearly $1 billion, and employs more than 2,100 researchers.
Adding to this rapid growth, albeit from a low base, is a crop of local biotech companies that has sprung up in recent years.
From 2010 to last year, at least 48 local drug-development and related biotechs have been incorporated, doubling that of the preceding decade (2000-2009). Singapore's biotech ecosystem is certainly headed in the right direction and appears to have reached an inflexion point.
Many of the earliest drug-develop- ment biotechs in Singapore were seeded by the public sector, such as S*BIO (2000), formed through a partnership between the Singapore Economic Development Board Investments and Chiron Corporation; and MerLion Pharmaceuticals (2002), an IMCB spin-off.
While both companies have ceased operations in Singapore, they were nevertheless pioneers that blazed a trail and left a lasting impact. All four of S*BIO's drug assets have entered into clinical trials after being out-licensed to pharmaceutical companies, and MerLion's antibiotic, Finafloxacin, received the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in 2015, a first for a Singaporean company . More importantly, these early biotechs helped to create a local pool of drug-development expertise.
The completion of Phase 1 of Biopolis in 2003 was a critical turning point in Singapore's biotech journey. Singapore's biomedical research hub has provided a fertile ground for a biotech ecosystem to take root.
Budding drug-development biotechs capitalise on the co-location with A*Star and other research entities to jump-start operations and initiate partnerships within and beyond the Biopolis community.
The presence of international pharmaceutical companies in Biopolis, such as Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline, has also enabled Singapore to build up a critical mass of excellent scientists who received training in drug discovery, either from working in the R&D divisions of these multinational corporations, or through collaborative research with them.
Even though several of these corporate laboratories eventually left our shores, their research talent remains a vital part of our drug- development ecosystem.
The establishment of A*Star's Experimental Therapeutics Centre (ETC) in 2006, and the Drug Discovery and Development Unit (D3) in 2011 demonstrated the Government's commitment to strengthen Singapore's core drug-development systems and capabilities. Together with partners like the Singapore Clinical Research Institute, the academic medical centres, investigational medicine units and research institutes, ETC and D3 have successfully translated basic scientific discoveries into promising drug assets. Two publicly funded cancer drugs, ETC-159 and ETC-206, are already in clinical trials.
Local biotechs are the natural recipients of public-sector drug discovery and development efforts. With the setting up of the Experimental Biotherapeutics Centre (EBC) at A*Star later this year, local biotechs will be able to harvest from another national drug-development platform.
While ETC, together with D3, moves small-molecule drug candidates from target validation to eventual commercialisation, EBC will develop a pipeline of biologics drug candidates, or large-molecule drugs, largely originating from Singapore's public-sector research.
Compared with their predecessors, today's biotechs are mostly private-sector driven, and often founded and populated by entrepreneurial talent who have honed their drug-development expertise in public and private research entities, both here and overseas. Several are also standing tall on the international stage.
One local biotech that has gained international recognition is Tessa Therapeutics, an immunotherapy biotech developing T-cell therapies for cancer. Tessa was founded in 2012 by chief executive Andrew Khoo, Mr Francis Chua and Dr Malcolm Brenner, the founding director of the Centre for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor College of Medicine.
Tessa is currently conducting the world's first FDA Phase III cancer T-cell therapy trial, and recently made global headlines when it announced a partnership with the renowned Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.
Tessa is also engaged in building up the Singapore biotech ecosystem and has forged collaborations back home with the National Cancer Centre and A*Star's IMCB.
Early this year, A*Star and Tessa established the Tessa-IMCB Joint Lab for Immuno-oncology, headed by Dr John Connolly, Tessa's chief scientific officer and concurrently a senior principal investigator and director for translational immunology at IMCB.
Tessa also recently acquired Euchloe Bio, a spin-off from A*Star's Singapore Immunology Network by its senior principal investigator technologist, Dr Wang Cheng-I. This immuno-oncology start-up is focused on the development of novel therapeutic antibodies for cancer treatment and combination therapy, and aims to take them to clinical trials in a few years' time.
Biotechs founded abroad by local talent have also been brought back to Singapore to add to the vibrancy of the ecosystem.
Inspired by the biotech culture in Silicon Valley, A*Star scholar Tan Yann Chong founded Atreca in 2012 with his professor during his postgraduate studies at Stanford University. The technology that he invented can take a snapshot of a patient's immune system and the individual antibodies that are causing a disease, at high accuracy and a hundred times faster than traditional methods. The aim is to develop novel therapeutics drawn from human immune responses that are more targeted and effective.
Today, Atreca is a 50-man strong company, with heavyweight partners like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi and Novartis. Dr Tan is now the director of the joint laboratory between Atreca and A*Star's Genome Institute of Singapore.
So, have we nurtured a vibrant drug-development biotech ecosystem in Singapore? We are certainly much closer than we were five years ago and there are clear indications of this. Between 2011 and 2015, drug-development biotechs increased their contribution to Singapore's Berd by sevenfold, from $21 million to $143 million.
Overall, biotechs' contributions to Singapore's Pharmbio Berd have soared from 3 per cent to 18 per cent in just two years (2013-2015).
In tandem with this growth, other adjacent technology companies, such as those in diagnostics and drug delivery, have also grown in number. Likewise, venture-capital firms are increasingly attracted by the opportunities presented by this rapidly growing biotech ecosystem.
Last year, Lightstone Singapore, a unit of US-based life sciences fund Lightstone Ventures (LSV), was set up to expand LSV's global footprint by investing in Singapore-based life sciences technologies and firms.
There are many reasons to be optimistic that Singapore's biotech ecosystem is poised to deliver even more, as our biotechs break new ground in drug discovery and development.
The public sector will continue to play a pivotal role in seeding and supporting Singapore biotechs, catalysing even more successful endeavours, and fostering an innovative and collaborative community.
The key, however, lies in the growing base of talent that we have already gathered here, spanning the spectrum of research, innovation and enterprise, and committed to enriching the drug- development biotech ecosystem.
The extent of their success will define the next phase of Singapore's drug-innovation ecosystem, for greater health and wealth for all.
The writer is chairman, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).
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