The rise of local medtech start-ups

Above: Biobot Surgical chief executive Sim Kok Hwee with a robotic system that can conduct prostate biopsies. The system, developed with Singapore General Hospital, is being used in Singapore hospitals and in Australia and Europe. Left: EndoMaster ch
Above: EndoMaster chief executive Goh Seow Ping demonstrating the use of a surgeon console prototype. Expected to be commercialised next year, the robotic-assisted system can remove tumours from the intestines and stomach without making incisions.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN, KELVIN CHNG
Above: Biobot Surgical chief executive Sim Kok Hwee with a robotic system that can conduct prostate biopsies. The system, developed with Singapore General Hospital, is being used in Singapore hospitals and in Australia and Europe. Left: EndoMaster ch
Above: Biobot Surgical chief executive Sim Kok Hwee with a robotic system that can conduct prostate biopsies. The system, developed with Singapore General Hospital, is being used in Singapore hospitals and in Australia and Europe.ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN, KELVIN CHNG
Dr Mohamed Dirani, managing director of Plano, showcasing the parental management app, which is also called Plano. He also co-authored a children's book series on myopia prevention.
Dr Mohamed Dirani, managing director of Plano, showcasing the parental management app, which is also called Plano. He also co-authored a children's book series on myopia prevention. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Growing numbers, prototypes moving to commercialisation, investments coming in

Local medical technology firm EndoMaster is set to launch the world's first robotic-assisted system that can remove tumours from the intestines and stomach without making incisions.

Expected to be commercialised at the end of next year, the system is made of a flexible endoscope - a slim tubular instrument - that enters the body through the anus until its tiny pincers reach the tumour.

The metal pincers, which are a few millimetres wide and a few centimetres long, will snip the lump while a surgeon controls the system using joysticks. The endoscope has a camera as well.

Currently, gastro-intestinal tumours are removed through laparoscopy - also known as keyhole surgery - and open surgery.

Those surgical methods involve incision, which could possibly lead to scars, pain and the removal of tissue surrounding the tumour and even portions of the intestines, which may lead to the loss of organ function.

Surgical procedures can last up to three hours and may require hospitalisation of up to 10 days.

But EndoMaster's invention, called the Master System, requires no cuts to the skin, and the pincers enter the body through natural orifices, said the firm's chief executive Goh Seow Ping.

"There is no need for the patient to be hospitalised, and the procedure takes between 35 minutes and over an hour."

Mr Goh added that the Master System is expected to be priced under US$1 million (S$1.38 million).

Besides EndoMaster, other local medtech start-ups have seen prototypes move into the commercialisation stage. Investments are coming in from venture capitalists and incubators, with the sector hunting for talent.

Government agency Enterprise Singapore said the number of home-grown medtech companies has increased from 100 in 2014 to more than 250 last year, and over half of these were start-ups.

The Asia-Pacific medtech scene is expected to skyrocket to US$133 billion by next year, from US$8 billion in 2015. It is set to overtake the European Union as the second-largest market in the world.

Local start-ups are involved in a wide range of technologies and devices such as medical implants, surgical robotics and AI-powered medical solutions, largely in the areas of in-vitro diagnostics, cardiology and ophthalmology, said Enterprise Singapore's director for healthcare and biomedical Johnny Teo.

Apart from the ageing population and the increasing prevalence of chronic disease, Singapore is a hotbed for the medtech sector because companies are getting more support from investors and the public healthcare clusters, added Mr Teo.

The Diagnostics Development Hub, formed in 2014 under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's enterprise arm has been speeding up the commercialisation of diagnostic technologies.

Since 2014, Seeds Capital, the investment arm of Enterprise Singapore, has also co-invested more than $90 million in more than 20 medtech start-ups.

Last year, the public healthcare clusters supported more than 100 medtech projects through clinical advisory, co-development and test-bedding.

For example, Singapore General Hospital worked with Biobot Surgical to develop a robotic system that conducts prostate biopsies using a navigation platform to position a needle that can target tumour areas accurately.

The system - used in Singapore hospitals and in Australia and Europe - has performed prostate biopsies on more than 6,000 patients.

For medtech start-ups to continue remaining bullish and resilient, the companies must venture beyond Singapore to overcome the limited market size here, said Mr Teo.

"This allows medtech companies to enlarge their market size and gain more opportunities in clinical partnerships, test-bedding and investments," he added.

Biobot Surgical's chief executive Sim Kok Hwee is hoping to break into the China market next year with an upgraded robotic system that contains both diagnostic and treatment functions, including cryotherapy, which freezes and kills prostate cancer cells.


AI-powered app reminds kids to give eyes a break

Singapore is known as the myopia capital of the world.

The prevalence of childhood myopia among seven-to nine-year-olds in Singapore is one of the highest globally.

When Singapore Eye Research Institute honorary principal investigator Mohamed Dirani conducted a study on more than 3,000 children aged six months to six years in 2008, he found that 11 per cent of them already had myopia.

"That was incredibly concerning to me because it meant intervention and eye check-ups were necessary even prior to primary school," he said.

Excessive device use, near work and a lack of outdoor activity make children's eyes grow longer, causing short-sightedness, he added.

Pro-technology, but also worried about poor eye-care habits in children, Dr Dirani injected a solution into the problem in the form of an AI-powered parental management app that keeps children's device use in check and monitors how often they rest their eyes and go for eye check-ups.

For instance, after a child has been playing video games on an iPad for 30 minutes, the Plano app will remind him, through an alert, to take an eye break.

If the child complies with the app's instructions, he will earn rewards to redeem a discounted trip to the zoo or enjoy toy deals. Dr Dirani said: "The rewards act as incentives for children to engage in more device-free activities."

The app also has an in-built eye-care referral function that uses smart algorithms to track users' eye health.

Dr Dirani's start-up, also called Plano, has a team of AI scientists, data analysts and engineers who use predictive modelling to find out the onset of myopia in a certain population. The app currently has more than 500,000 downloads in Singapore, Malaysia, India and Australia.

Plano aims to roll out its in-built optometry referral platform across Singapore, Australia and the United States soon.

Shabana Begum

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 03, 2019, with the headline 'The rise of local medtech start-ups'. Print Edition | Subscribe