Back in 2000, the government of Singapore announced that it was investing in the life sciences as the ‘fourth pillar’ of the state economy alongside electronics, chemicals and precision engineering.
Since then, billions of dollars have gone toward building dedicated hubs for biomedical research such as Biopolis, university departments linked to the life sciences, along with a recruitment drive to bring world-leading foreign experts to this corner of Southeast Asia.
The aim was simple: turn Singapore into a biotech superpower.
Experts who have moved to Singapore describe the country’s strategic efforts to develop the next generation of innovative medicines by seeking out the best and brightest academics.
One of them, Dr John Connolly, Chief Scientific Officer of the Boston-based Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, now holds a position at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore. He said that he was attracted by their long-term vision. “Something that’s really tough for people in the U.S. to really understand is that in Singapore, you can have 40, 50-year plans,” he says. “So you can really do some amazing things. Whereas in the U.S., you’re always thinking about two-year election cycles.”
But Singapore’s approach isn’t only based around foreign talent. As a country of just 5.5 million people with no natural resources, Singapore has long prioritized maximizing the education of its populace, particularly within the life sciences through funding PhDs and university positions. The latest figures suggest that A*STAR alone has a pool of 560 PhD graduates within biomedical-related sectors. Awaiting them is a thriving biotech sector which has already tripled in size in the last decade, and is predicted to grow from 52 firms in 2022 to 84 by 2032.
A decade ago, many of the ideas being cultivated in academia first started to be spun off into companies, and now, signs are really emerging that Singapore’s long-term investment in brainpower could begin to be translated into therapeutics with major potential. In particular, a number of companies have achieved considerable success in the public capital market since 2021.
Earlier this year, cancer diagnostics start-up Mirxes, an A*STAR spin-off, completed a pre-listing funding round which valued the company at approximately $600 million, while another particularly notable example is Hummingbird Bioscience, which raised $125 million in series C financing in 2021. The company is looking to pioneer new precision medicines for cancer patients in the fast-growing antibody-drug conjugate (ADC) sector.
Longevity and Cultured Meat
Singapore has often made headlines in recent years for the country’s focus on accelerating cultivated meat and longevity science, driven by macro factors such as food security and its rapidly aging population. In 2020, the nation became the first to offer regulatory approval for cell cultured chicken produced by Californian start-up Eat Just, and Singaporean manufacturer Esco Aster has announced future goals of producing 400 to 500 tons of cultivated meat per year.
The drive towards healthier aging is being spearheaded by the Singaporean Ministry of Health, with annual healthcare spending predicted to triple from an estimated 18 billion Singaporean dollars in 2020 to 50 billion Singaporean dollars in 2029.
However, in the near future, some of the biggest advances are likely to be made through Singaporean biotechs pioneering cell therapies and RNA-based vaccines. Earlier this year, a partnership was announced between RVAC Medicines, a Singaporean mRNA platform company and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which will see RVAC Medicines receive up to $3 million to accelerate the manufacturing processes behind its next-generation mRNA vaccines, thus helping to deliver doses more quickly when responding to future pandemics.
More Resilient Biotechs
To be sure, Singapore still faces certain challenges inherent to the biotech universe — ensuring a sufficient talent pipeline as well as the sheer unpredictability of medical science.
In July, cell therapy company Tessa Therapeutics swiftly dissolved due to fundraising issues amidst the harsh market climate which has been dubbed the ‘Biotech Winter.’ However overall, Singaporean biotechs are believed to be more resilient to market turbulence compared to their counterparts around the globe. This is because their technology tends to have been incubated for longer within academia and they have a level of state support to rely on. While progress would undoubtedly be faster without the current downturn, there are many innovative companies poised for the market to return.
As for my part, I recently had the great pleasure to travel to Singapore and participate on behalf of Leaps in the launch of a new incubator called 65LAB, along with venture capital investors ClavystBio, Lightstone Ventures, Polaris Partners, the Polaris Innovation Fund, and global drug discovery and development company Evotec.
The concept behind 65LAB is to establish a new model of long-term partnership which can help nurture future company growth and continue to develop Singapore’s biotech ecosystem. Working with leading academic institutions in Singapore such as A*STAR and the National University of Singapore, 65LAB will select promising academic projects and invest up to $1.5 million in each one over the course of 18–24 months.
“65LAB is unique in bringing together an experienced drug developer, a top tier investor syndicate and leading academic and research institutions to foster venture creation, and grow Singapore’s biotech ecosystem,” says Khoo Shih, the CEO of ClavystBio. “Singapore has a growing wealth of academic science and innovation, and we believe the time is now to translate these into novel medicines and benefit patients.”
Special thanks to David Cox for his additional research and reporting on this article.
The article was initially published on Forbes.com on October 31, 2023