SINGAPORE - Local biomedical companies have raised a record amount of funding so far, with more than US$600 million (S$820 million) raised from January to September this year, according to the latest figures from Enterprise Singapore (ESG).
The lion's share of these investments was raised by a handful of Singapore's most promising companies, including biotech firm Mirxes, Esco Lifesciences, which supplies life sciences tools to the healthcare industry, and healthtech start-up Doctor Anywhere.
Ms Audrey Lok, health and biomedical director at ESG, said funds raised have increased more than five times to US$464 million in 2020, from about US$86 million in 2016.
"This success can be attributed to our maturing ecosystem as well as our ability to attract experienced accelerators and venture capital firms to Singapore, and connect local companies to innovation nodes around the world," she said.
ESG supports Singapore small and medium enterprises. It released its figures earlier this month.
Ms Lok noted that the biomedical innovation ecosystem here has grown nearly six times over the last decade, with more than 360 biomedical start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises to date.
"This is partly accelerated by the increase in demand for biomedical solutions during the pandemic," she added.
But the flourishing industry of today has been years in the making.
Large investments were made in the early 2000s to develop the infrastructure, human capital and intellectual capital for innovation to thrive in the biomedical sector, said Professor Benjamin Seet, deputy group chief executive of education and research at the National Healthcare Group and former executive director of the Biomedical Research Council at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).
"There were many detractors, even among our international advisers. Some felt that Singapore was too small, that our people were not entrepreneurial enough, that our investors were too risk-averse, that our government was too focused on returns on investments.
"It didn't help that in the first decade, there were only a handful of local biotechs and few successes," said Prof Seet.
But the efforts eventually paid off, and the biomedical manufacturing sector in 2019 contributed to about 4 per cent of Singapore's gross development product (GDP), with still much more room to grow, he added.
This took time to build, and there were no shortcuts, he said.
Mirxes co-founder and chief executive Zhou Lihan, who had his diagnostic test kits for gastric cancer approved and commercialised in 2019, said that research for his technology had begun as early as 2002, when he was a life sciences student at the National University of Singapore."In 2010, we moved our research project to A*Star, where we got funding and support to translate our technology for commercialisation. Mirxes was eventually spun off in 2014. There's a long gestation period for the product to come to fruition," said Dr Zhou.
Said Prof Seet: "With Singapore's tiny domestic market, we are already at a disadvantage. Our success depends on being able to weave a sticky web of talent, science, big and small companies, and capital, in an environment that makes it easier for innovators and entrepreneurs to succeed."
But these biotech companies will also need to reach beyond local borders - and tap wider resources in the region, for clinical trials, market access, manufacturing capacity, and in some cases, talent and funding, he added.
Many biomedical companies, such as Mirxes, conduct their research and development in Singapore, but have operations and manufacturing facilities in the US and China, where clinical trials are carried out.
Government-owned SGInnovate helps firms translate scientific research into technology-intensive applications that can be commercialised, by providing funding, connections and talent development initiatives.
Its executive director of investments, Mr Hsien-Hui Tong, said: "The biomedical sector is seeing strong growth, and this upward trend is a testament to the confidence in the quality of Singapore's biomedical start-ups.
"However, funding for early-stage companies remains a challenge due to the long regulatory pathway needed for biomed and medtech innovations, and some investors prefer to fund companies which have products or treatments that are already clinically approved."He added: "This is an area that SGInnovate has been investing in, and we're working with more corporates, incubators and funds to come in earlier and support the growing number of companies emerging from our institutes of higher learning and research institutions."
Three up-and-coming areas in the health and biomedical sector
1. Precision medicine
This field takes a personalised approach in preventing and treating disease by factoring in a person's genetics, lifestyle and environment.
To improve public health, Singapore launched its National Precision Medicine strategy in 2017 - a 10-year plan to make precision medicine a reality on a national scale.
The programme entered its second phase in April this year, with a large-scale study of the genetic make-up of 100,000 healthy Singaporeans and 50,000 patients with specific diseases.
2. mRNA therapeutics
Since mRNA vaccines came to the rescue in the Covid-19 pandemic, the technology has been touted as a game-changer in medicine.
Scientists are turning to mRNA, or messenger RNA, for the development of new vaccines to treat cancer, Aids and other autoimmune diseases.
mRNA vaccines deliver information to the body’s cells and teach them to make proteins in order to train the immune system to fight a particular disease.
Mr Hsien-Hui Tong, the executive director of investments at government-owned SgInnovate, said: "This is a new and exciting approach to the manufacturing of vaccines, potentially even enabling clinicians to design personalised mRNA molecules tailored to patients, training their bodies to recognise and fight tumours in a highly specific manner."
3. Digital therapeutics
This new field uses software as a medical device to diagnose, monitor and treat a range of health conditions.
For example, data from a diabetic patient's blood glucose meter can be connected to his insulin pumps for immediate intervention when necessary.
Digital therapeutics could potentially be used in treating patients with cognitive and mental health issues such as dementia and depression, said Mr Tong.