On Jan 27 2016, local biotech company InvitroCue made its debut on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX: IVQ) – just four years after its founding. The company, a spin-off from A*STAR, just announced that it had raised an AUD 3.15 Million (SGD3.17 Million) on the ASX through a reverse takeover.
In an exclusive one-on-one interview with Biotech Connection Singapore (BCS), the InvitroCue team (co-founders Dr Steven Fang, Prof Hanry Yu, and two of the first pioneering members, Dr. Abhishek Ananthanarayanan and Dr. Shuoyu Xu) shared their experience and appeal as a success formula for entrepreneurs in the local startup scene.
BCS: Can you share with us what are the critical drivers underlying InvitroCue’s success?
InvitroCue: We focus on four components essential to every company’s success – technology, market strategy, business model and leaders.
Technology: We focus on two core technology developments – cell-based assay model and digital pathology. The beauty of our cell-based assay 3D model lies its ability to keep liver cells alive which represents a more faithful mimic of in vivo liver. Using our in vitro models that have in vivo relevance, we provide in vitro toxicology and safety assessment services to test experimental drug compounds. Due to the huge amount of money incurred during R&D activities, pharmaceutical companies are in urgent need of strategically cutting down their expenses. We grasped this window of opportunity by providing better analytics in the space of in vitro drug assessment, which gives these companies an avenue to tinker on their cost base. Till now, our technology has managed to help pharmaceutical companies save hundreds of millions of dollars spent on in vivo testing.
The second core technology development focuses on imaging analytics; we currently operate in the space of digital pathology, which is a relatively intact research area. Our CuePath platform is designed to convert pathology images derived from pathology glass slides to digital and optical images, and subsequently archive and transmit via our CuePath to various other pathologists. This facilitates the sharing and analysis of images flowing through our accredited pathologist networks, which could expedite preclinical research outcomes and patient diagnosis.
Starting up a company is mainly a business venture, while a groundbreaking technology is merely the beginning of this journey.
Market Strategy: Due to the fundamentally different natures of our two technologies, we chose to adopt distinctive market strategies. We made the strategic decision to secure our revenue by selling customized cell-based assay models to the global pharmaceutical companies through collaborative partnerships and services-based contracts. In return, this secured revenue is used to support our digital pathology business development and marketing implementation. We are amazed to see the uptake of the pathology services in strategic research programs, and as a result, we have managed to sell both technologies and services to all corners.
Business Model: A good product and marketing strategy require a suitable business model to achieve a successful business outcome. We mainly operate as a service company, where we offer the full suite of service package to the customer – starting from methodology development till getting the final results. We believe this is the best way to guarantee the quality of the results; we can provide evidence-based models in the most appropriate manner to our customers.
Leaders: In a startup, we need a combination of people with natural ability and desire to lead. In InvitroCue’s case, Dr Fang and Prof Yu are experienced mentors who inspire and coach the pioneering team members to better themselves and advance the company to greater heights. Prof. Hanry Yu is a veteran in interdisciplinary research who has maintained a keen interest in industry and academia, while Dr. Steven Fang is a seasoned entrepreneur, who has successfully led startups to IPO in ASX.
Savvy technology, market strategy, business model and leaders are critical drivers of successful companies
Local biotech startups ought to plan and position themselves with the global market in mind
Scientist entrepreneurs should engage business partners and investors whom they trust, and respect the latters’ professional opinion
BCS: Where do you foresee the future direction of local biotech startups?
InvitroCue: Singapore government has put in a lot of effort to support local startups financially, as exemplified by our company – the technology was developed in house at A*STAR IBN, incubated under ETPL and spun off in 2012. With strong financial support from the government, there will be a growing number of biotech companies that aim to go global in the future. The reason that we are now based in Singapore but developing customers in China and United States instead of centered in Singapore, is also to support this “going global” perspective.
When you are looking for potential exit for the company, you should also keep your eyes on the horizon – the global market – as it is important to identify a compatible match between your company and market demand. We choose ASX because ASX has a better market understanding for early-stage biotech companies. Singapore and United States stock markets are more suited for mid-to-large size companies, However, it does not preclude us from being listed in other markets when opportunities arise down the road.
BCS: What advice would you give our PhD/ Post-doctoral fellows and entrepreneurs?
InvitroCue: For scientist entrepreneurs, it is key to have an appetite for risk, but never be too greedy. Starting up a company is mainly a business venture, while a groundbreaking technology is merely the beginning of this journey. We encourage scientists to step out of the lab, meet different people and seek out potential business partners, as the relationship between the inventor and his business partner is critical. After the scientist finds someone whose sense of business he/she trusts, the scientist should give the business expert all the say. If scientists do not have this mindset and try to control the business aspects, there is no way for the product to get to the market.
When looking for funding support, a similar balance exists between the investors and the scientists. The high risks investors shoulder when they inject capital for product development before the product is ready for the market justifies equal partnership with the entrepreneurs. And this relationship can only thrive when both parties have mutual respect and a common vision.
InvitroCue is currently looking for talented and enthusiastic individuals to join their team. Check out more details at http://www.invitrocue.com/