Hitting the sweet spot in blood sugar testing

SINGAPORE - To add to the inconvenience of watching everything they eat, diabetics often face a convoluted process to monitor their blood sugar levels constantly.

But one Singapore firm has come up with a far simpler solution.

The longstanding method of monitoring blood sugar involves a kit with many instruments, including a device to prick the diabetic's finger, a paper-like strip to drip the blood on, and a machine to give a final reading.

All this is a hassle especially when diabetics are away from home and have to fumble to put everything together.

But monitoring is still necessary, as the consequences can be severe if their blood sugar levels spike undetected.

Enter Singapore-based Sentec. It is less than three years old but already believes it can ease these headaches for the 350 million diabetics worldwide.

The firm is developing a product which will allow patients to test their blood sugar more easily.

It is compressing the entire kit into a compact, integrated unit, doing away with the need to assemble the kit every time.

"The current method is not convenient enough," said Mr Pierre Hennes, director and vice-president for business development at Sentec.

"That's why people don't test as often as they should."

Sentec's product will bring modern design to blood glucose monitoring, he said.

"We will bring the iPhone revolution to diabetes patients," he said, referring to the way the Apple product has introduced modern designs and new capabilities to mobile phones.

Sentec has already developed its own technology for blood sugar testing and is now working on product prototypes.

Its product will cost only about one-third of existing test kits. This means that Sentec's product will lead either to lower costs for patients or higher profits for companies.

Sentec eventually hopes to tie up with a large medical technology firm to commercially make and sell its blood glucose meter.

But Mr Hennes said it is hard to determine how long it will take before its product eventually hits the market. A lot will depend on the timeline set with the partner.

Still, the market is expected to grow with increasing affluence, as diabetes is considered a "rich man's disease".

It is linked to diets that are rich in sugars and fats and low in fibres, and to sedentary lifestyles - all increasingly common as incomes rise around the world.

Mr Hennes expects the global diabetic population to grow to 500 million within five years, from 350 million now. A large part of that growth will come from Asia, he added.

The sales per year for testing devices are approaching US$20 billion (S$25.4 billion) worldwide, most of it from the strips to put the blood droplets on. This is also expected to grow, and Sentec expects that its product will be able to get a chunk of this business.

Sentec was started in August 2011 by a group of entrepreneurs and medical technology professionals. The technology was soon developed by Dr Roobik Azarnia, a former medical professor, and Dr Robert Ray, a medical device veteran.

Dr Azarnia, 73, had taught at the medical school of the University of Miami in the United States before he decided to go into the medical device industry.

The US citizen had launched a few start-ups before being approached to set up a new company in Singapore to develop a blood sugar tester.

Mr Hennes, a 41-year-old German, was among a group of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who brought Dr Azarnia to Singapore's shores.

He has been in Singapore for about 10 years and has been involved with several start-ups, including real estate listings site PropertyGuru and Tagit, a mobile banking software company.

Mr Hennes said that Sentec has nine staff, including himself and Dr Azarnia. It is looking for equity funding and strategic partnerships for its next stage of product development.

It is also looking to hire project and systems engineers, with experience in medical devices.

So far, the company has received grants from government agencies Spring Singapore and DesignSingapore Council, and from private capital.

Today, Dr Ray is Sentec's chief operating officer and Dr Azarnia is chief scientific officer.

Dr Azarnia said Singapore is a good base for start-up businesses like his.

The Republic has good infrastructure and many engineering and testing companies that Sentec can work with, he said.

"The intellectual property protection is good, and there are many exciting opportunities in Singapore."


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