Former NMP pushing medtech sector by linking engineers with doctors

Prof Tan sitting next to a brain computer interface developed by A*Star. He says Singapore has seen huge growth in the medtech cluster but challenges include talent shortage and a lack of testing and registration expertise. His desire is to see someone's health improve or lives saved with home-grown medical devices.
PHOTO: Former NMP pushing medtech sector by linking engineers with doctors

SINGAPORE - Associate Professor Tan Sze Wee, 46, is deputy executive director of the Biomedical Research Council, planning and directing research and development activities for the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) biomedical research institutes.

A doctor by training, he has worked as a civil servant in the Ministry of Health, and sits on the council of the Singapore Medical Association, a regulatory body for medical practice in Singapore.

From being a medical entrepreneur to advocating for small and medium enterprises as a Nominated MP from 2005 to 2006, he has experienced the highs and lows of the research scene here.

In the early 2000s, Prof Tan started biomed company Rockeby Biomed, which commercialised a fungal testing kit called Candia5. It tried to list in Singapore, but investors did not have the appetite for what was perceived to be a high-risk biomed technology firm in its early stages.

Now, he is taking his experience from the public and private sectors to A*Star, where he is also in charge of medical technology cluster development.

When he is not busy tinkering with medical devices, the movie buff spends time appreciating fine wines, travelling and taking photographs.

He is married to Ms Yap Mei Foon, 45, deputy director at regional health system Eastern Health Alliance, and has two daughters aged three and six.

Q: You founded your own medical technology (medtech), company Rockeby Biomed, which produces test kits for diseases ranging from flu to HIV, but left in 2009. Why?

I wanted a change in environment and to come back to more policy-related work.

But in those nine years as an entrepreneur, I gained invaluable experience understanding the challenges of commercialising medical technologies.

I learnt early the hard realities of developing medical technology in Singapore. It takes more than a good idea to make a medtech device successful. You have to turn that idea into a workable prototype, navigate complex regulations and manufacture cost-effectively before selling the technology.

Q: So now that you're deputy executive director of the Biomedical Research Council at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), in charge of pushing the medtech sector, is it a case of "those who can't do, teach"?

Definitely not. I can share what I have learnt with doctors, engineers and scientists, and many are keen to develop their own medtech products.

Few are able to fully grasp what is needed to take their technology to consumers, such as the need for deep pockets. Inventors should have a business model, and know whether patients and doctors would be willing to pay for it. You'd be surprised how many don't.

I was a former Nominated Member of Parliament where I used to be an advocate for small and medium-sized enterprises. I have formed good networks with policymakers there. This allows me to get their attention and push through medtech-related policies faster.

Q: Given that it can take 20 years for a promising drug to make it to market, is medtech considered low-hanging fruit?

Medtech is all about inventing technologies that can improve the health and well-being of mankind.

Firms usually invent products, go into trials and get regulatory approval - it can take many years.

But there have been success stories. Take QT Vascular, which manufactures devices to treat vascular diseases. It moved its operations from Silicon Valley to Singapore in 2009, completed its product development, obtained United States and Europe regulatory approval in 2012, and started manufacturing and distributing its products last year. It launched an IPO (initial public offering) in April this year - a milestone achievement in five years since its entry to Singapore.

We see more similar companies using Singapore as a base and, if the financial markets provide greater investor interest and exit strategies, the cluster will flourish.

Q: What has the progress been so far?

Singapore has seen tremendous growth in the medtech cluster. We saw medtech firms generating $4.3 billion in manufacturing output in 2011, supporting 9,000 jobs.

Global medtech firms also have their regional headquarters in Singapore. Greater public funding and better infrastructure for early-stage innovation have also spawned over 60 local start-ups.

Q:What are the most exciting products or devices local inventors are working on here?

One example is a brain computer interface invented by A*Star's Institute for Infocomm Research.

Users wear a headband with sensors and they use brainwaves to trigger signals for other activities. The headband is usually hooked up to a screen and, when users concentrate hard enough, they can move an object on the screen.

This is useful for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It trains them to concentrate and it is a self-rewarding mechanism where you can see results on the screen.

Q:But challenges remain?

Yes. One key challenge is talent shortage. We are addressing this issue with programmes, such as the Singapore-Stanford Biodesign Fellowship, to train doctors, engineers and scientists to be future medtech innovators. We teach them to think business and be market-oriented while developing devices.

Our local clinical and regulatory environment should also support testing and streamlining the registration of novel and first-in-class medical devices.

Traditionally, Singapore is not the first stop where companies register their medtech devices. They gain regulatory approval in places like the US and Britain first. Business-wise, it makes sense as these are larger markets.

But if Singapore wants to capture the whole value chain for medtech, we need to develop more testing and registration expertise or else we would lose out to other countries.

Also, Singapore's medtech consumer market is currently too small. In order for home-grown medtechs to succeed, it needs to give its products more market access overseas.

The ASEAN common market in 2015 will help to achieve this in some way by harmonising medical device standards across ASEAN countries.

Q: So what needs to be done first?

Currently, firms need to reach market capitalisation of $150 million to be listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange, and very few medtech start-ups meet that mark. This means they need to be already generating good sales for their products.

Taiwan has a more open model of allowing medtech companies to list at an earlier stage, when they begin testing their products on people, and long before their products are sold. This process can be expensive and medtech companies are known to need funding here.

We need such attractive policies to make Singapore a base for medtech companies. Otherwise, we might lose the business to places like Taiwan, and with that go talent, jobs and intellectual pro- perty.

Q:How will the industry benefit ordinary people here, and when will this happen?

At this stage, many local small and medium-sized enterprises are in the product development phase.

As more start to move further towards the market phase, it will be very exciting to see our local innovations used in our hospitals, clinics and in daily life.

Telehealth will become a big thing as consumers interact on health-care matters through their smart devices.

For example, if you broke a hip in a fall, an app on your mobile device could simultaneously send alerts for an ambulance and to inform your next of kin and neighbours of the accident.

I want to see someone's health improve or lives saved with home-grown medical devices.

Q: Personally, why do you do what you do?

I have been fascinated with science since I was a boy, playing and experimenting with chemistry at home, building my own personal computers and figuring out why things work.

Now, my job involves helping engineers link up with doctors. In the process of getting to know them, I get to know in detail fascinating inventions which rely on cool disciplines such as microfluidics, additive manufacturing, flexible materials, and wireless connectivity.

To see the amazing results from interdisciplinary collaborations reinforces my interest in science, particularly in medical devices.

kashc@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 29, 2014.
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