HONG KONG – Singapore isn't just becoming a biotech hub. The island nation's biotech ecosystem is at "an inflection point," said Benjamin Seet, executive director of the biomedical research council at A*STAR (The Agency for Science, Technology and Research), a statutory board under the Ministry of Trade and Industry.
"In the past five years alone, close to 50 drug development biotech companies were incorporated in Singapore, and I am highly optimistic that the number of companies will continue to rise," he said.
Seet isn't alone in his optimism. The Scientific American Worldview placed Singapore as second on its 2016 list of countries with strong biotech potential, just behind the U.S.
"Singapore's biotech ecosystem is becoming increasingly sophisticated, with licensing and acquisition deals and robust pipelines already in place. We now have an increasing number of made-in-Singapore drugs in clinical trials, and we have local biotech companies reaching valuations of hundreds of millions and achieving public listing," Seet told BioWorld Asia.
"This is an exciting time to set up a biotech company in Singapore."
But it didn't happen overnight.
The Singaporean government has been investing in R&D efforts since the early 90's, starting with a SG$2 billion (US$1.5 billion) budget for its National Technology Plan 1995. The public investment in R&D currently stands at SG$19 billion (US$14.2 billion) under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 Plan (RIE2020).
"The initial public investments in the life sciences took place almost 30 years back, and have been sustained over the decades," said Seet.
Teo Chee Hean, deputy prime minister and chairman of the National Research Foundation Singapore, had previously expressed a need to invest in R&D to turn Singapore into a "knowledge-based economy, which thrives on innovation and enterprise." And the government has made health and biomedical sciences a key pillar in the RIE2020. Under the plan's budget, SG$4 billion (US$2.9 billion) has been specifically allocated to health and biomedical sciences. Another SG$3.2 billion (US$2.3 billion) will go toward advanced manufacturing and engineering, which would be beneficial for biotech manufacturing growth.
"This has now resulted in new drugs, devices and diagnostics being discovered and developed in our hospitals, medical schools and research institutes, which have in turn, led to a steady pipeline of commercial activities," said Seet.
Furthermore, five therapeutic areas of focus have been identified as priorities: cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes mellitus and other metabolic or endocrine conditions, infectious diseases, and neurological and sense disorders.
Singapore's position as a finance hub has also come in useful for developing its biotech industry. State investments in biotech, meanwhile, have bolstered the sector. Examples include Tessa Therapeutics Pte. Ltd., which recently closed an SG$108 million (US$80 million) financing round led by state-owned investment company Temasek Holdings.
The company plans to use the proceeds from that funding round to further advance its clinical pipeline and to bring therapies, based on the company's VST, or virus-specific T-cell, platform, into clinical trials. Tessa is conducting the largest phase III trial of its kind for its lead drug candidate, TT-10, a T-cell therapy specifically aimed at cancer cells harboring the Epstein-Barr virus, a type of herpes virus that stays permanently in certain white blood cells of an infected person. The virus has been linked to many types of cancers. (See BioWorld, June 27, 2017.)
The drug has received fast track and orphan designation from the U.S. FDA. Tessa anticipates that the trials may lead to the first T-cell therapy for a solid tumor approved by the FDA.
If not on the home ground, then markets close by in the region have also proved to be viable sources of funding for Singapore based biotech companies.
Among them, the biggest success story would be Aslan Pharmaceuticals Pte. Ltd., which raised NT1 billion (US$33 million) on the Taipei Stock Exchange. The 2.6 million shares offered for the IPO were oversubscribed by 29.4 times. (See BioWorld, May. 17, 2017).
The company has a pipeline of five novel compounds and one modybodies (novel stabilized heavy chain human monoclonal antibody fragments that can be assembled into multi-specific formats) platform for the treatment of Asia-prevalent tumors.
"Singapore's pro-business and pro-science policies have helped nurture a thriving biotech industry," Carl Firth, CEO and founder of Aslan, told BioWorld Asia. "The commitment to building world-class infrastructure, talent, research and intellectual property protection provides robust support for biotech companies, like Aslan, to succeed,"
Partnerships, infrastructure and manpower
Funding was just one part of the country's efforts.
"A coordinated, intensive, nationwide approach was also essential," according to Lim Chuan Poh, chairman of A*STAR. "Its ministries and public-sector agencies have worked well together and have nimbly made changes over time to boost momentum. In an ever-changing global economic landscape, this integration and coordination have been essential."
Partnerships with research institutions including A*STAR and National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) have enabled Tessa to accelerate its journey to develop next-generation cancer therapies.
"At NCCS, we conducted a phase II trial, which demonstrated one of the highest two-year overall survival benefit of 62.9 percent among trial participants and led to Tessa's phase III trial for nasopharyngeal carcinoma," John Connolly, Tessa's chief scientific officer, told BioWorld Asia.
"Tessa is currently operating a joint immuno-oncology lab with A*STAR's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology," he added. "The collaboration is bringing together Tessa's R&D, clinical and commercial expertise with A*STAR's world-class research facilities to accelerate cancer immunotherapy research. These are examples of Singapore's rapid advancement in medical research over the last decade and are testaments to its position as a hub for biotech discovery and medical excellence in the region."
Partnerships aimed at bridging the gaps between Singapore and other markets, like the Korea-Singapore Healthcare Incubator, have also been useful in helping both Singapore investments and innovations reach a wider audience. (See BioWorld MedTech, Oct. 12, 2017.)
The Southeast Asian country also has the infrastructure in place to host biotech companies. It has two major biotech parks, with tax breaks and other incentives provided to encourage companies to settle in those hubs.
The one-north district, a subzone located in Queenstown, is an international research and development center for biomedical sciences, tech and media firms. It is home to institutions such as A*STAR and Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. Last year, a $72 million Advanced Medicine Oncology Centre opened in the area.
The other park is the Tuas Biomedical Park.
Besides R&D facilities, Singapore also has a growing manufacturing sector to support biotech companies. Abbvie Inc., for example, opened a 120,000-square-meter biologics manufacturing site in the Tuas Biomedical Park. (See BioWorld, Oct. 9, 2017).
The country also has focused on cultivating its human resources.
"Singapore concluded that it must promote strong intellectual capital creation as a basis for developing knowledge-intensive companies and generating high–value-added jobs for Singaporeans," said Deputy Prime Minister Teo.
According to A*STAR, Singapore is now home to more than 50 biomedical sciences manufacturing plants that employ more than 19,000 people and has a market value of SG$15 billion (US$11 billion).
The $293 million plant that Abbvie operates is expected to take in about 250 personnel across different disciplines, with approximately 83 percent being local hires.
"We are participating in the Biologics Overseas Skills Training [BOOST] program to build up a pipeline of skilled manpower for Singapore's biologics manufacturing industry by supporting the execution of its training modules," Marc O'Donoghue, site director of Abbvie Operations Singapore, told BioWorld Asia.
"This includes upgrading the skills of experienced professionals as well as equipping fresh graduates with on-the-job training in biologics manufacturing," he added.
The BOOST program is a professional conversion program jointly developed by Workforce Singapore (WSG) and the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) specifically for the local pharmaceutical and biologics sector. So far, more than 350 professionals have benefited from that program since its inception in 2014. Abbvie alone currently has 47 trainees under BOOST.
Overall, the environment of Singapore has proved receptive to the industry.
"Following the establishment of Singapore's first biomedical research institute – the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in 1985, Singapore has developed to become a leading biomedical hub with an attractive ecosystem for rapidly growing, ambitious biotechnology companies," said Connolly. "The presence of a large pool of talent in biomedical sciences here also contributes to the advancement of the Singapore's biotech ecosystem," he added.
For its part, A*STAR has contributed to that growth in a number of ways, said Seet, "for example, in creating intellectual property, in nurturing talent and in spinning-off companies."
A*STAR has put in place national platforms like the Experimental Therapeutics Centre and Drug Discovery and Development unit to support development of drug candidates. It also offers incubators such as A*START Central to further house and support startup companies.
Seet claimed that about one-third of local biotech spin-offs in the past decade have come from A*STAR.
"The priority now is to support and sustain this growth," he said.