An exclusive interview with Esco – from cleanrooms to containment systems
Esco Group is a Singapore-based life science company with a diversified portfolio and sales in over 100 countries. As a leading manufacturer of laboratory and biopharma equipment, as well as IVF medical devices, Esco offers tailored solutions that fit the needs of laboratories. Esco Group provides equipment and services to support cutting-edge research as well as commercial manufacturing of biopharmaceuticals in the Life Sciences, Medical and Healthcare divisions.
In an exclusive interview with Esco, Biotech Connection Singapore spoke to Mr. Xiangliang Lin (XL Lin), Founder & CEO of Esco Aster, an independent Contract Development and Manufacturing Organization (CDMO) in the Esco Group of companies.
What is the mission which drives Esco and its spin-offs?
XL Lin: Regardless of what we do, the intrinsic mission of Esco is to invent, discover and commercialize enabling technologies to make human lives healthier and safer. For example, our biological safety cabinets (BSCs) and isolators as well as clean air and containment systems are manufactured to protect operators who handle biological samples. They are also used in pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical production settings as well as cell and gene therapy to provide aseptic processing work-zones. This mission permeates through our Life Sciences, Medical as well as Healthcare divisions and is the motivation which drives Esco.
Esco has come a long way since its days as a family owned cleanroom supplier and equipment manufacturing business. Can you tell us more about the Esco journey?
XL Lin: Esco was founded in 1978 by my parents, Mr Lim Lay Yew and Mrs Lim Yae Foong who graduated as pharmacists from the University of Singapore. With only two dollars as the paid up capital, my parents started Esco as a cleanroom design and build business, the first of its kind in Southeast Asia. At the time, multinational corporations were just starting to set up shop in Singapore, with the electronics industry experiencing unprecedented growth. Esco, unfazed by such corporations, built the first cleanrooms and supplied the cleanroom workstations for Siemens Components for their manufacture of LCDs.
Subsequently, Esco ventured into related businesses such as the manufacture of cleanroom garments, cleanroom construction components, cleanroom equipment and providing cleanroom laundry to complete the loop of cleanroom products and services. I vividly remember my family making cleanroom garments from the cloth used for white funeral umbrellas! In addition, my mother who was working as a pharmacist realised that there was a demand for Witch Hazel decoctions (scientific name: Hamamelis virginiana). She imported Witch Hazel in 45 gallon (170.344 litre) drums and dispensed it into smaller bottles to be sold to the pharmacies. You can say this was how the bulk dispensing line of Esco started!
Hence, Esco understands changing market conditions and customer intent. We respond to these trends quickly to create a customer-centric culture where we are primed to invent new technologies and products. From a cleanroom business, we ventured into the development and sales of laboratory equipment, especially BSCs. During the SARS crisis in 2002, Esco saw the opportunity to certify our BSCs to international standards. We also started to export our products globally, with the first container shipment imported by our partner in South America. Many people did not appreciate the importance of biosafety in Asia and were using laminar flow cabinets, hence exposing themselves to biohazards as well as increased risks of laboratory acquired infections. To address this issue, we started a series of seminars to educate users about biosafety and biocontainment so as to equip them with the knowledge to use the appropriate equipment for containment, depending on the application.
Currently, there are three divisions in Esco – Life Sciences, Medical and Healthcare. Just last year, all the technologies in the Healthcare division which I had started and developed were spun off into Esco Aster to provide contractual development and biomanufacturing of cell, gene therapies, vaccines, animal health and biologics products. Together, we supply all the equipment in a standard laboratory such as CO2 incubators, bioprocessing equipment, ultra-low temperature freezers for cold storage and more. We also manufacture medical tools such as our patented Miri time-lapse incubator to monitor the development of human embryos. This has greatly enhanced the success rates of artificial reproduction. We also engage in venture creation to nurture technologies which address unmet needs in the women’s health segment. To achieve that we have Esco Ventures which is our corporate venture arm and Esco Ventures X which is our biotech incubator for venture creation. One of the venture creation companies is Carmentix which develops pre-term birth diagnostics.
What do you think are the most important factors contributing to the success of Esco?
XL Lin: Being based in Singapore has definitely helped. There is a sustained emphasis on innovation by the Singapore government. Government policies in Singapore focus on education as well as research and there is a continuous adaptation of the government to meet global demands. In fact, small countries like Singapore are more flexible and able to respond quickly to changes. As my father says, Esco is a microcosm of Singapore. We need to move with the trends. So we shifted from manufacturing cleanrooms to developing and selling life science equipment, then to providing enabling tools in biotechnology. Currently, we are focussed on providing solutions in the medtech field with an emphasis on women’s health and reproductive technologies. We are also interested in other healthcare industries, especially in nascent cell and gene therapies as well as other unmet needs in areas such as orphan drugs and neglected tropical diseases.
Many unique trials and tribulations lie behind the scenes of biotechnology businesses. Can you share with us some of these challenges and how you overcame them?
XL Lin: It is difficult to introduce new methods in a conservative field such as bioprocessing. At Esco Aster, we encountered resistance in introducing our newly developed patented Tide Motion TideCell® bioreactor to users. Most were more familiar with the commonly used suspension as well as microcarrier technologies in stirred tank bioreactors and were reluctant to adopt new technology.
Hence, we had to convince users that cells can grow well in our Tide Motion TideCell® bioreactor. We generated data and used Design of Experiments (DOE), a systematic method to determine the relationship of bioprocessing factors affecting an industrial process and the output of the manufacturing process modelling a production batch. Our scientists also helped clients to troubleshoot their experiments as well as create new scalable processes. Our efforts paid off and currently, we have clients who use our Tide Motion technology for the commercial production of vaccines. There is also a large clinical pipeline of clients utilizing Tide Motion in continuous bioprocessing operations to produce viral vectors for chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapies, stem cell therapy and biosimilars/ biobetters using Chinese Hamster Ovary (CHO) cells.
What are your proudest business achievements to date?
XL Lin: My proudest business achievement is the establishment of our factory in the USA. Esco has had a presence in the USA for 15 years, with the sales and marketing office being in Pennsylvania since 2003. It is exciting being in the USA as it is a powerhouse for the development of novel molecules. With support from the US government, academia and venture funds as well as being around like-minded people, Esco is able to be close to our customers and respond quickly to changes in the biotechnology market. This enables us to develop more novel tools to aid in customers’ discoveries.
Currently, the factory in USA focusses on the manufacture of bioreactors, aseptic formulation and filling line isolators. We also have a process development laboratory in the USA under Esco Aster for the scaling up of biologics, vaccines, cell & gene therapy as well as the customization of bioreactors.
How do you think Esco has made a positive impact or contributed to the community that you serve?
XL Lin: Esco provides enabling tools in the life science and healthcare industries. Our products are sold and serviced by 25 sales and service offices. We also have more than 100 distributors. Thus, Esco supports careers in the life science and healthcare industries. At any time, someone is using Esco tools to develop molecules, cure cancer, for cell and gene therapy as well as for commercial manufacturing of drugs. Our Tide Motion TideCell® bioreactors are used to generate vaccines, especially in the event of pandemics. With our linearly scalable platform, we can potentially develop an effective flu vaccine and scale up the process for commercial production within six months from antigen identification. In this way, we contribute to enhancing the wellbeing of the community.
Esco Aster’s focus is on vaccine self-sufficiency, biosimilars/ biobetters as well as cell therapy such as mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), exosomes, CAR T-cells and T-cell receptors (TCRs). We work with the entire ecosystem to assist in the incubation of companies by providing consultation, biomanufacturing services, pathways to commercialization and access to venture funding. As the first CDMO in the region with an in-house patented bioprocessing platform, we are focused on bringing the world to ASEAN and ASEAN to the world. With financial sponsorships from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-financial public sectors (NFPs), we help developing countries in the region to be vaccine self-sufficient by assisting them in the development of their own in-house vaccine production capabilities. These countries can then produce their own vaccines for both animals and humans. The animal vaccines ensure a healthy meat supply for human consumption in addition to preventing the transmission of zoonotic diseases to humans as more than 80% of human diseases are zoonotic in origin.
The community in ASEAN is more than 600 million strong and there are 1.22 billion people in Africa. However, many cannot afford healthcare. Hence, we are also focussed on lowering the cost, for instance, of next generation biosimilars/ biobetters so that more people can afford monoclonal antibodies (Mabs), recombinant proteins and enzyme replacement therapies for the treatment of various diseases ranging from cancer to auto-immune disorders. Thus, our vision is to further enable translation from discovery to delivery.
What makes an effective leader? How do you motivate staff and team members to work towards the mission and vision of Esco?
XL Lin: You have to listen more than you speak. You also have to be open to new ideas. Listen to your customers and the needs of the market. Being patient and leading with humility is important. Ultimately, it comes down to finding a leadership style that works for you. It takes a team to create a molecule. Hence, the credit goes to the team, not the individual. There should not be any rock-star scientists or CEOs. Create an environment for open communication and collaboration to motivate your team. Lastly, encourage project ownership and amplify each person’s strength.
As the second generation successor of Esco, where do you foresee the direction of Esco and its spin-offs in the next five years?
XL Lin: I foresee that it will be a very exciting time with huge breakthroughs and new technologies in the biotechnology as well as biomanufacturing spaces. For instance, Esco Aster is looking forward to serving the needs of biopharmaceutical companies, especially in the fields of CAR T-cell therapies and Adeno-Associated Virus (AAV) gene delivery methods. We are also looking into other upcoming platform modalities. Currently, we are expanding our factories and operations as well as setting up laboratories in China. In Europe, we are setting up sales offices and laboratories in Germany and France.
How do you see the current progress and future landscape of bio-entrepreneurship in Singapore? Has it become harder or easier to succeed in business?
XL Lin: There is start-up support from the Singapore government for entrepreneurship in the form of grants as well as an emphasis on innovation. Esco too has benefited from the grants from Enterprise Singapore. I would say there is no direct correlation between the landscape and success in business. It all depends on how ambitious you are and who you decide is your target client or market. There are always clients for any product in the market. It is important to be humble and pivot when needed to go where the money is!
Be open-minded to identify new areas to meet the needs of the ecosystem as well as achieve a win-win situation for your shareholders.
Any encouraging words for aspiring bio-entrepreneurs?
XL Lin: It sounds clichéd but the more you know, the less you know! Success as a bio-entrepreneur depends less on academic qualifications than it does on being adaptable in the market. Sometimes, you need to pivot your company to respond to the needs of the market, as Esco has done on several occasions. For more advice, bio-entrepreneurs are welcome to speak to us!
- Responding to market needs, keeping an open mind as well as being enterprising and adaptable are keys to succeeding in business
- Government support and collaboration with academia contribute to success in bio-entrepreneurship
- To find their own market and niche, local bio-entrepreneurs should position themselves to address trends in the global market.
Above information is correct at the time of publication.
Photo: Esco Aster