The journey from research lab to bringing a product to market is often long and unpredictable. Jacqueline Woo speaks to the people behind A*Star spin-off InvitroCue - executive director Steven Fang and Professor Hanry Yu, scientific mentor and adviser - about the ups and downs it encountered.
Q How did InvitroCue come about?
A (Dr Fang) Many of the technologies that InvitroCue is commercialising today were developed by Professor Yu and his team, who are also working for the company now in its effort to take them to market.
The development process took about six to seven years, in collaboration with A*Star, the National University of Singapore and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.
We started the company in 2012 to license these technologies from A*Star. In a sense, the technologies are the ones being spun off.
The company was created to hold the licences to the technologies, bring in the investment capital needed and grow the technologies.
Q Tell us more about the company's products.
A (Dr Fang) We have two classes of technology under the company.
The first is in the space of in-vitro testing (tests done inside a laboratory instead of within a human body), where we've created a humanised liver model to test out different drugs, vaccines or medical devices.
When pharmaceutical or biomedical companies design a product and take it to market, it is usually a very long journey and can be very costly. So we help these companies make decisions on the right products while managing that risk of spending hundreds of millions of dollars.
We help them get data about the toxicity of the product, because you don't want it to go out to consumers before realising that even though it works, it may not be safe.
We have another arm that deals with digital pathology. Pathology is a medical practice that looks at different specimens to determine the cause and nature of diseases.
When the doctor collects biopsy (a sample of body tissue), it's typically sent to a pathologist who looks at it under a microscope for an extended period of time or consults with other pathologists before making a report. Much of that can be automated today.
The market potential for digital pathology is huge, especially in markets like China, where hospitals are geographically dispersed.
For example, there are discrepancies among those in the first-tier and second-tier cities in terms of the quality of care and access to specialists.
This technology can bridge those differences by allowing the digitised biopsies to be looked at by pathologists from anywhere in the world. More importantly, it also reduces significantly the time needed for the patient to get the report - from weeks to days - and improves the accuracy of the diagnosis.
Q How did A*Star support the development of the company?
A (Dr Fang) None of this would have been possible if not for Exploit Technologies (ETPL, an A*Star unit) and Spring Singapore, on whom we were very reliant for support and funding in the early days.
In fact, the company didn't have to bear a huge research and development burden because a lot of the technology was already incubated within A*Star. (Prof Yu) When it comes to funding, big companies usually have their own strategic agendas, so it's difficult to come up with new innovations because of the pressure.
For crazy ideas, you need some no-strings-attached funding - and ETPL has been very helpful in offering us that flexibility with its gap funding, which allowed us to take risks. (Dr Fang) Taking the technology from a pure research idea to something that could work and have relevance in the market - I feel this is a very good model for Singapore to look at. In the past, biotech companies didn't have the benefit of that. But this could be a formula for Singapore to produce more such companies.
Q What are the company's plans for future growth?
A (Dr Fang) We made our debut on the Australian Securities Exchange last week through a reverse takeover that raised A$3.15 million (S$3.17 million). For us, it was the fastest and easiest way to bring in investors and good, sticky funds.
It will also help us expand in China, where we are building a laboratory in Suzhou Industrial Park, to be completed by the end of the first quarter.
For the longer term, we hope to build InvitroCue into a global business. We're not profitable yet, but hopefully, we will be within the next few years.
Our revenue has been doubling every year in what we see as a sign of validation from the market, even with the volatility seen in global markets today.
This article was first published on Feb 3, 2016.
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