As a co-founder of a Singapore-based, venture-backed biotechnology company, I’ve witnessed both first-hand and seen from industry colleagues the many challenges that come with establishing a biotech startup in the country.
High infrastructural startup costs, a lack of collaboration and networking opportunities, a prohibitively long lead time to set up a fully equipped BSL-2 laboratory, as well as feelings of isolation on the path to groundbreaking innovation, are just some of the hurdles that fledgling biotechs must overcome. These barriers to entry must be resolved to give the sector a chance to truly flourish.
Overcoming the cost factor
One of the first hurdles that any new business faces is the startup cost. Biotechs are no different and more affected than many startups in other sectors. While the Singapore government has been extremely supportive by offering meaningful technology and research grants to assist biotech companies, these startups face unique cost challenges on top of standard capital expenditures that are difficult to address.
Many biotech startups begin in university settings, but often these institutions do not allow company activity or have to make room for academic research or new incubation projects. This presents several issues: startups then feel the need to establish their own laboratory space, but that incurs high rental and construction costs, especially in Singapore. They also need specialised equipment for research and development, even though these may be used only infrequently, which is a high cost-per-use ratio on an already limited budget. Add the financial and time costs of hiring professional management and highly skilled talent into the mix, and most biotechs never end up getting off the ground.
Biotech startups in other, more mature geographies have demonstrated that they are able to save millions of dollars and up to 12 months of work by sharing laboratory facilities and laboratory equipment. However, this is not easy to do between individual startups and benefits greatly from centralised platforms to provide this solution. This was a driving factor for the creation of NSG BioLabs as a shared platform: using the ‘plug and play’ model, biotech startups only need to pay for the utilisation, rather than the ownership, of biotech equipment and laboratory space. This is a much-needed middle ground for biotechs that cannot yet afford and do not need an entire fully equipped BSL-2 laboratory to themselves.
Saving costs on specialised equipment and building a laboratory does more than just help startups survive. With that cost burden now significantly reduced, startups can divert those resources to areas that are more critical to growth and innovation, such as developing their groundbreaking technologies and hiring skilled talent. This means that the R&D runway is shorter, and technologies bear fruit more quickly.
Fostering a collaborative ecosystem
It is always lonely to start something new, especially if it has never been done before. Startup ecosystems and communities are so important in part because they can help alleviate this sense of isolation and spark new ideas. This is particularly impactful to the biotech industry as a relatively novel sector in Singapore. Many of the biotech startups we have seen are pioneers in their respective fields, developing breakthrough technologies and science that have no precedence. With an established community, they can benefit from strong support from their peers and also unlock opportunities to collaborate on projects.
We saw this development first-hand as we gathered more and more startups, which led to the organic creation of a community. People would meet in common spaces and begin discussing their projects and technologies, which helped accelerate innovation and even led to breakthroughs. Larger companies were able to share their experiences and exchange ideas with promising startups, which led to growth and collaborative opportunities for both parties.
Industries are ultimately born from collectives, and collectives are formed when like-minded people come together, so it is important to build and professionally run the spaces that encourage this organic development. The presence of a robust biotech collective could also attract international biotech and pharmaceutical companies to set up key sites or headquarters in Singapore. This will help create rich diversity within the biotech ecosystem and propel the country closer towards its ambitions of becoming the premier biotech hub in the region.
Envisioning Singapore’s biotech future
Singapore has succeeded in establishing itself as a hospitable environment for biotech players, with the sector displaying dramatic growth and expected to be a key economic driver for the country. As of 2019, there were over 350 biotech and medtech companies in the country, and this number has grown further since. Continuing this rapid growth requires a sustained, collaborative effort from all players in the entire ecosystem to address pressing issues around cost, community and participation.
To achieve this, it is critical that Singapore offers professionally managed facilities, mentorship, networks, operational excellence, and strategic partnerships, ultimately creating a favourable environment for early-stage biotech startups to thrive. We believe this will cement Singapore’s status as an innovative biotech hub for years to come.