AIM Biotech – Journey of an early-stage VC funded start-up

By Brendan Sieow and Su Chengxun

AIM Biotech is a Singapore-based biotech start-up that builds 3D cell culture systems, which can mimic human organs and disease models for drug discovery and testing by researchers and pharmaceutical companies. Founded in 2012, the company has just completed its Series A financing led by Wavemaker Partners, which saw participation from SEEDS Capital (the investment arm of Enterprise Singapore), Elevate, Wavemaker Three-Sixty Health, Black Kite Investment etc.

We spoke to two members of the founding team of AIM Biotech, Mr. Kuan Chee Mun, Executive Director, and Dr. Andrea Pavesi, Consultant, to find out about AIM Biotech’s journey as a start-up, their experiences navigating the biotech industry as start-up founders, and to seek their advice for aspiring start-ups in Singapore.

BCS: What is the story behind AIM Biotech? How did you get involved with AIM Biotech?

AP: It all started a few years back, during my post-doctoral fellowship in Professor Roger Kamm’s lab in the Singapore MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART). We explored the idea of having a disposable device to culture cells in a 3D microenvironment, and this was appealing to many labs. As such, we started brainstorming ways to make a lab prototype and worked towards turning this prototype into a commercially viable product.

CM: The research group had plans to commercialise their organ-on-a-chip technology in the US and Singapore. With the Innovation Grant awarded by the SMART Innovation Centre, they performed proof-of-concept and pre-commercialisation work to produce and develop the platform for commercial use.

I previously worked in Advanced Technology Development at Becton Dickinson & Co. (Asia-Pacific). This role involved looking for commercial opportunities and making business proposals and plans within the company. I was asked by Howard Califano, the current director of SMART Innovation Centre, to come on board as a consultant to SMART to develop a business plan for what was to become AIM Biotech. I proposed an execution strategy to enter 3 market segments in succession: the research tools segment, the biopharmaceutical drug development segment and the companion/complementary diagnostics segment. Each new segment would involve higher revenue opportunities (and higher risks) but each new segment would build upon the advancements & data established in the prior segment.

BCS: Could you share more about the innovative technologies developed within AIM Biotech and their respective applications? Do you have any technology/platform that is under development right now?

CM: Our standard chip comes in the size of a microscope slide and houses three identical microfluidic sites, so that experimental replicates can be performed side by side. These chips can be fitted onto a microtiter plate holder for easy handling and stacking. We ensure that our chips are user-friendly and manageable for a general cell biologist, without the need to learn any new skillsets.

Our microfluidic device has been designed for users to perform experiments with cell lines, primary cells, aggregates, organoids and patient biopsies. The experimental data that can be extracted from the chip can come in the form of confocal imaging, as well as extracting cells and media from the chip to perform PCR/RT-PCR, flow cytometry, protein profiling and advanced platforms like Nanostring. Presently, our device has been used by the research community for research into cancer, immunotherapy, vascular function, neurobiology, and for general cell biology research.

In terms of manufacturing these chips, we found that the commonly used material polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) had some disadvantages. PDMS absorbs hydrophobic compounds, making it unsuitable for testing a library of compounds by potential customers in the pharmaceutical space. Also, PDMS does not lend itself to efficient and scalable manufacturing due to its long production cycles. As such, we opted to produce our chips through efficient plastic injection moulding processes.  While engineering plastics are easy to manufacture, they are typically not gas permeable. We managed to solve this problem by incorporating a gas permeable laminate to a moulded plastic chip base, ensuring sufficient gaseous exchange for cell culture.

AP: We designed our device to contain a middle chamber and two side chambers. This simple design allows users to perform several experimental configurations and introduce multiple cell type co-cultures. Some applications that have been performed on our chip include testing immune checkpoint inhibition, drug delivery efficiencies in blood brain barrier models, and T cell efficiency. We also designed our device around a simple principle of confining cells in a hydrogel for 3D cell culture, allowing nutrient diffusion and flow. As cell visualisation in the chip is needed for data collection, we also focused on making our device compatible with various modes of microscopy by ensuring that there is optical clarity.

We also have microtitre format holders that align our device loading points in a 384-well plate configuration to make them compatible with automation. This allows us to work with pharmaceutical companies to implement the protocols that we developed in a high throughput fashion. Additionally, we will soon have devices dedicated to testing particular diseases.

Microtiter plate holder with AIM chips

BCS: Your company recently chose to offer organ-on-a-chip contract research services. Could you share more about these services? Is this part of your changing business strategy?

AP: The services offered by AIM Biotech is housed in my lab in the Institute of Molecular & Cell Biology (IMCB). We are providing services to customers looking to outsource their R&D effort. We work closely with the customer, from protocol design to data interpretation. Such services are particularly useful for biotech companies that would like to have external organisations run their experiments, in order to save money and time. This will enable them to focus on other priorities.

CM: We formed a collaboration with IMCB, which has many central analytical equipment that we as a joint service lab can access. This is beneficial for a start-up company, as we can offer a greater range of services without the need to purchase the equipment ourselves.

The offering of organ-on-a-chip research services has always been a part of our business plan to work with pharmaceutical clients. The contract research services that we offer is a way to lower the adoption hurdle for pharmaceutical companies, so that they can explore our technology without heavy investment of time and resources.

BCS: Is AIM biotech in talks with pharmaceutical companies on using organ-on-a-chip platform for preclinical drug testing?

CM: Yes, we already have a number of international pharmaceutical companies that use the AIM platform in internal R&D programs. We are now providing preclinical research services to local pharmaceutical customers, and we are also in talks with biopharma customers in the US & Europe. We currently work with our service clients to design and generate data for validation studies of their existing or new drugs. Our eventual goal would be for them to either bring this technology in-house to be part of their workflow, or for them to use us as a contract research organization (CRO). Over time, we hope to partner with overseas CROs to service pharmaceutical companies in different territories.

BCS: What would you describe as the greatest challenge for AIM Biotech right now?

CM: It is difficult to gain visibility during the pandemic, as we are unable to go to trade shows and scientific conferences. We had to adapt by increasing our online presence such as conducting scientific webinars and posting on social media platforms. On the flip side, since all companies have to face the same challenge, it has levelled the playing field between big and small companies in some aspects of marketing.

Another challenge that we face is fundraising. Fundraising for early-stage start-ups usually begins at the local level, and the success rate is heavily dependent on the maturity of the local early-stage venture capital (VC) ecosystem.

Series A funding can be challenging to raise for a deep tech company in Singapore. On top of that, our propositions are very technical, and it was difficult to go to a general VC firm to seek funding. We were fortunate to get Series A financial backing of Wavemaker Partners, the largest Series A fund in Southeast Asia, who understood the potential impact of our technology and led the round. We were also backed by other VCs like Elev8 and Venturecraft, and also family offices and strategic corporate partners. For our Series B, we will be working towards getting additional VC funding in Singapore and in the US.

Fundraising for early-stage start-ups usually begins at the local level, and the success rate is heavily dependent on the maturity of the local early-stage venture capital (VC) ecosystem.

BCS: As part of your fund-raising efforts, what are your experiences and thoughts about the funding ecosystem in the private and government sector for aspiring start-ups in Singapore?

CM: VC firms are exposed to all the ongoings in the biotech space around the world, so aspiring Singapore start-ups need to know that they are facing global competition to get funded. You need to have a good and clear business proposition that is understandable to non-technical people. Additionally, VCs look for start-ups that can scale, enter the global market, and continually create different opportunities to generate sizeable revenue.

Government funding agencies usually co-invest and match the funds invested by VC firms. They usually rely on VC funds to take the lead and perform the necessary due diligence. Therefore, it is important to attract the interest of VCs.

You need to have a good and clear business proposition that is understandable to non-technical people. Additionally, VCs look for start-ups that can scale, enter the global market, and continually create different opportunities to generate sizeable revenue.

BCS: Why did AIM Biotech choose to set up its operations in Singapore? How do you extend your reach beyond Singapore to access markets overseas?

CM: A combination of factors led to AIM Biotech setting up its operations in Singapore. Firstly, we were a start-up company coming out of SMART, MIT’s research centre in Singapore.

Secondly, we needed a strong base for scalable manufacturing. Singapore has long history of contract manufacturing, which started from supporting the consumer electronics industry and has since moved towards supporting the biotech industry as well. My key engineer, Lawrence Lim, and I were both previously from Becton Dickinson & Co, and had links with contract manufacturers in precision engineering. We were able to find and work closely with a local contract manufacturing firm to manufacture the different parts of our chip, which we would later assemble in-house. We have since changed our manufacturing strategy, by working with another contract manufacturer to scale up the manufacturing process and assemble the devices within their facility.

Thirdly, Singapore has high respect for intellectual property, and we can find contract manufacturers that we can trust.

As previously mentioned, our service operations are also in Singapore, as we were able to establish a good partnership with IMCB. We are able to provide research services to international customers from a base in Singapore.

In terms of reaching overseas markets, we have always looked beyond Singapore. Being linked with Prof Kamm’s lab in MIT meant that we had reach beyond Asia from the start. We sold our first product to a customer in Switzerland in late 2015, and we have been selling our products in the US since 2016. To date, we have sold our products in over 20 countries, with customers coming from over 150 academic labs and over 10 pharmaceutical companies. We have distribution partnerships with international firms like MilliporeSigma (Merck Millipore), Fisher Scientific and other national distributors.

BCS: How do you service customers overseas?

CM: Our overseas technical support is done by email and Zoom calls. We would have online calls with customers who have not used microfluidics devices before, to help them with their experimental design questions. Customer feedback has been positive: they say that the AIM platform is easy to use, fits well into their experimental workflows, and have a low failure rate.

BCS: How have your hiring practices changed over the years?

CM: When we started the company, we did not do much hiring as we did not have the resources for that. After clinching our Series A funding, we have been actively growing our team. Currently, platforms like LinkedIn are important to reach out to potential candidates. Additionally, due to our highly specialised field that we are in, the pool of talent in Singapore is limited to a few labs, and we are already in contact with them. We find that using traditional recruiter firms for our specialised areas is not very productive.

However, this is different for non-specialised roles. When we were previously manufacturing our chips in-house, we did recruit factory line operators. For this, we turned to traditional recruitment firms to recruit workers for this role.

BCS: Question for Chee Mun: Coming from the private sector, how did it prepare you for your role as the founding CEO and current Executive Director of AIM Biotech? 

CM: My time working in Advanced Technology Development at Becton Dickinson & Co. (Asia-Pacific) gave me the necessary experience and foundation to take up the role of founding CEO of AIM Biotech. This corporate experience also prepared me in terms of building relationships and forming collaborations with other multi-national corporations and partners in the way that they expect.

It is important for people to realise that moving from a multi-national corporation to a start-up involves some adjustments. You will wear many hats within the founding team, ranging from negotiating with contract manufacturers, performing IP management, taking on human resources roles, to writing business plans and projections.

BCS: Question for Andrea: Running a research lab and a start-up business sounds like a challenge. How do you balance your time between being an investigator and an entrepreneur?

AP: It is very challenging, but also very rewarding. I really enjoy the process of translating the work we do in the lab into a commercial product. Having one foot in academia and one foot in the industry keeps me more aware of the “real world” and what the industry is looking for. The working hours are never enough, but I always try to have a good work-life balance.

BCS: Finally, given your experience, what advice would you give to aspiring start-up founders?

CM: Firstly, the assembly of a good initial team is very important, as it sets the right culture for future recruits. It is also important to note that every person that you recruit into your founding team will have an outsized influence over how your company is going to become, so do exercise a lot of judgment in the recruitment process. It does help to involve people that you had previously worked with, as you know what you can do as a team and work faster towards an objective. Additionally, do seek out people who have relevant industry experience from multi-national corporations, as their domain knowledge and perspective will be very valuable for commercialising your product.

Secondly, start-ups that are coming from a technology background need to be cognisant of the fact that their technology is not necessarily a product. Refinements are often needed to turn lab technologies into commercializable products. One key area would be how the customer experiences your technology.

In our case, we wanted to make sure that our product could be used by R&D customers with experience in cell culture work, but without needing any prior experience with microfluidic platforms. We design our products to work within the existing workflows of pharmaceutical companies to lower the adoption barrier. We make sure our devices and chip holders are Society for Biomolecular Screening (SBS)-compliant and test our devices with common automated liquid handlers and high content imaging systems. So instead of making our potential customers change to use our product, we engineer our products to fit them.

AP: Go for it! It is an enriching experience and keep all your doors open!

Secondly, start-ups that are coming from a technology background need to be cognisant of the fact that their technology is not necessarily a product. Refinements are often needed to turn lab technologies into commercializable products. One key area would be how the customer experiences your technology.

AIM Biotech Team (pictured here from left to right): Jeremy Lim, Applications Development Scientist, Lawrence Lim, Engineering Manager, Lim Sei Hien, Applications Development Manager, Kuan Chee Mun, Executive Director and Founder

Biotech Connection Singapore (BCS) is part of an international network of non-profit organizations, that aims to promote the transfer of ideas from theory to real world applications by providing a platform for fostering interaction between academia, industry and businesses.

%d bloggers like this: