So you want to be a bio-entrepreneur?

by Daphne Ng

The first stirrings may have come to you while you were in the laboratory. You may have discovered an interesting biological mechanism that can be applied for disease treatment when you realised that the research can potentially be commercialised for greater impact, instead of merely existing as a publication. Maybe, you have developed a prototype medical device which you want to bring to the market. Or perhaps, you are considering a career outside the world of academic research which utilizes your training as a scientist.  

As a scientist, your training is valuable for bio-entrepreneurship. Many hours spent in research have honed your creative and critical thinking, initiative, drive as well as resilience in the face of failure – all important skills for bio-entrepreneurship. In fact, scientific training comes in handy from Day One of your entrepreneurship journey! Just like how you would identify and address a knowledge gap before embarking on a research project, the first step to bio-entrepreneurship is to identify and address an unmet need in the biotechnology market.

Regardless of where you are on your journey or what your interests and motivations are, here are some resources to guide you towards becoming a bio-entrepreneur.

 

Events organized by non-profit organizations and venture capital arms

For those starting out in this field, you can attend events and workshops to get a clearer picture of what bio-entrepreneurship entails, as well as be inspired by an idea or two. These are organized by non-profit organizations and venture capital arms to promote biotechnology entrepreneurship to the scientific community and anyone interested in starting their own biotechnology enterprises. The events are usually seminars or panel discussions which feature prominent biotechnology entrepreneurs who share insights on current trends in the biotechnology space. If you have an idea in mind that can be potentially developed into a start-up, these are great opportunities to meet like-minded bio-entrepreneurs to refine your vision as well as to network with potential collaborators and investors in the audience.    

Biotech Connection Singapore

Biotech Connection Singapore (BCS) (that’s us!) is a non-profit organization that promotes life science entrepreneurship. We are 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. In collaboration with industry partners, BCS organizes events on the latest trends in biotechnology in Singapore. Events range from seminars on innovation and commercialisation in the medtech field to advice from managing partners and founders on entering overseas markets to a panel discussion on achieving success as a life science entrepreneur.   

SGInnovate

SGInnovate is a private organisation owned by the Singapore government. The organisation prioritises Singapore-based IP and enables aspiring entrepreneurs in Singapore to bring globally-relevant innovations from Singapore to the world. SGInnovate also organizes events which aim to expand the deep tech talent network as well as strengthen deep tech communities. With the advent of deep tech and its ever increasing applications in biotechnology, attending these events will be beneficial for a bio-entrepreneur wanting to apply the knowledge in these fields when starting up.    

 

Entrepreneurship Programmes and Fellowships

For those who want to jump in and get their hands dirty, you can attend entrepreneurship programmes organized by technology transfer offices (TTOs) and research programmes. Participants in these programmes rub shoulders with industry mentors and entrepreneurs. The mentorship provided during these programmes and fellowships is particularly useful for those who are working on commercializing an idea.

Lean Launchpad Singapore

Lean Launchpad Singapore piloted by NUS Enterprise is a 10 week programme that fosters entrepreneurial thinking through experiential learning. Each team in the programme has the opportunity to develop a proprietary technology into a viable business. Topics covered during the workshops include customer development, business model development and agile engineering. Programme tracks include Infocomm Technology, Life Sciences and Engineering. To apply for a project, professors / inventors / principal investigators (PI) submit a proposal and appoint a post-doctoral researcher as the Entrepreneurial Lead (EL) of the innovation team. MBA students, entrepreneurs, individuals with business experience as well as an industry mentor will also join the team, thus complementing technical expertise with business experience, knowledge and contacts.

Singapore-Stanford Biodesign Programme

The SingaporeStanford Biodesign (SSB) Programme is jointly organized by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), the Economic Development Board Singapore (EDB) and Stanford University. The Singapore Biodesign (SB) Fellowship offered by the programme is a 1-year team-based training on all aspects of medical technology innovation. The Fellowship focuses on developing new medical device technologies for clinical needs in Asia which have not been addressed. Fellows of the programme will be supervised in Singapore by mentors from Singapore Biodesign and Stanford University. They will also visit countries such as China and Indonesia to investigate unmet clinical needs and understand the local medtech ecosystem. Lastly, the Fellows will spend 6 weeks in Stanford to develop implementation plans for their projects under the guidance of experts from Silicon Valley. Fellows receive stipend, tuition and international travel support. Each Fellow who completes the fellowship is required to work in Singapore for 2 years.

The SSB Programme also offers an Innovation Class to the students from National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore Management University (SMU), Duke-NUS Medical School, NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, NTU Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, Singapore University of Technology and Design and Singapore Institute of Technology as well as working professionals. Under the mentorship of SSB Fellows, students work in teams on real unmet clinical needs in the form of design projects. Aspects of the medical device innovation processes covered during the course include clinical needs analysis, market analysis, brainstorming, prototyping, intellectual property, regulatory, reimbursement, product development, business plan development and financing. Students gain a good understanding of the theory and learn from real practitioners at the same time. At the end of the course, students present a business plan and a prototype to a panel of physicians, investors, industry executives and entrepreneurs. Working professionals who are private students complete individual reports but are not required to fulfil project based deliverables.

SSB also conducts an introductory 2-day Biodesign workshop for industry and medical professionals. Sales and marketing professionals can attend a customised version of this workshop. Topics covered in the Biodesign workshop include biodesign process, needs screening and concept generation. For sales and marketing professionals, some of the topics covered are biodesign process, needs identification and needs specification.    

Entrepreneur First (EF)

Entrepreneur First (EF) is a London-based company builder and start-up accelerator which brings together individuals who want to start a company. Individuals e.g. academics, entrepreneurs and technologists who join EF are matched into teams. Teams then form companies and work together to develop business ideas. Along the way, EF connects teams with investors and helps in fundraising. EF has launched its first international branch in Singapore. The teams which graduated from the programme will receive seed investment from SGInnovate and Silicon Valley-based Sparklabs Global. The start-ups in the first cohort include KroniKare which developed a software to monitor chronic wounds and Lemnis Technologies which aims to build a virtual reality headset that reduces the unpleasant side-effect of motion sickness in users.      

SMART Impact Bootcamp

The SMART Innovation Centre is managed by the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART). They host the SMART Impact Bootcamp, a 5 day programme for anyone interested in technology entrepreneurship. For more details, please contact the Innovation Centre.

 

Entrepreneurship competitions

Now that you have whetted your appetite for bio-entrepreneurship, it is time to bring your idea for a test-drive. Bio-entrepreneurship competitions are a fun way to test the feasibility of your potential start-up and win some funding at the same time. Applications to these competitions often involve writing a proposal and pitching the idea to a panel of judges. Hence, participating in competitions is also an excellent chance for start-up founders to practice skills which they will use as entrepreneurs.

Johnson & Johnson Innovation QuickFire Challenge

The Johnson & Johnson Innovation QuickFire Challenge, organized by Johnson & Johnson is a global competition that aims to support life science innovators through the development of integrated, cross-sector solutions. The challenge comes in several different flavours to address pertinent issues in various areas, ranging from digital healthcare to innovation of medical devices (at the moment of publication, there are a few on-going challenges). Interested participants pitch their ideas by submitting a proposal which is evaluated by a panel of reviewers. Winner(s) of the challenge receive grants, residency at JLABS, a global network of open innovation ecosystems which empowers innovators to create and accelerate the delivery of health and wellness solutions, as well as mentorship from Johnson & Johnson Innovation experts to develop their idea into a product ready for launch into the market. In collaboration with Exploit Technologies Pte Ltd (ETPL) at the Agency for Science, Research and Technology (A*STAR), Johnson & Johnson launched the Singapore QuickFire Challenge – Metabolic Disease Innovation in 2017 to address the issue of metabolic diseases in Asia Pacific such as diabetes. Winning entries include a novel biomarker-based prognostic for the treatment of diabetes; a non-viral technological solution to treat a wide range of diseases where a functional gene is required, and a real-time patient monitoring software.

 

Grants from the Singapore government, university technology transfer offices and research programmes

In addition to participating in competitions, you can also apply for grants to fund your start-up. The Singapore government, university TTOs and research programmes provide entrepreneurship support by hosting initiatives such as grant schemes. The National Research Foundation Singapore (NRF), a department within the Prime Minister’s Office, sets the national direction for research and development (R&D) by developing policies, plans and strategies for research, innovation and enterprise. The NRF funds the SMART Innovation Centre, a centre operated under the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), as well as grant initiatives which are administered by TTOs. Depending on the criteria of the grant, these are open to researchers and students as well as Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents.

Start-up grants from NUS Enterprise and NTUitive

In collaboration with government agencies, NUS Enterprise and NTUitive at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) respectively offer several funding schemes for start-ups and small medium enterprises (SMEs). These provide funds to develop research outcomes into commercial products, access international markets as well as to manage intellectual property. An example is the MOE Translational R&D and Innovation Fund administered by NUS Enterprise for Singapore Polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs) to carry out technology translation, development and commercialisation of University technologies. The Innovation and Entrepreneurship Practicum Award provides up to S$10 000 to current NUS students to develop their innovative ideas into a minimum viable product. One of the funding schemes provided by NTUitive is the NTUitive Gap Fund which provides up to S$250 000 to support Proof-Of-Concept development for NTU researchers to facilitate the commercialisation of technologies developed in NTU.

Funds from National Research Foundation Singapore (NRF)

The NRF Central Gap Fund, administered by the Central Innovation and Enterprise Office (CIEO), aims to support the translation of research outcomes into economically as well as socially beneficial products, processes and services. Additionally, NRF administers strategic research programmes which support investments in areas of research to create new industries and enable high growth.

For entrepreneurs keen on making a difference in the environmental sector, the Fast-Track Environment & Water Technologies Incubator Scheme (Fast-Tech) helps start-ups to commercialise environmental and water technologies.  

Innovation and Explorer grants from SMART Innovation Centre

Through its Innovation grants (up to S$250,000) and Explorer grants (up to S$50,000 for students), the SMART Innovation Centre enables SMART researchers, faculty at all Singapore universities and research institutes as well as students to pursue market-driven research in emerging technologies such as biotechnology, biomedical devices, information technology, new materials, nanotechnology, and energy innovations. They can also participate in programmes that will facilitate commercialization of their innovations. Awarded projects include humanized mouse models for drug development, three-dimensional microfluidic assays for cancer drug screening and the development of an industrially viable workflow for carotenoids production.

Gap funding from Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)-Exploit Technologies Pte Ltd (ETPL)

If you are a researcher at A*STAR, you can apply for gap funding provided by ETPL. ETPL is the commercialisation arm of A*STAR, supporting it by driving innovation and commercialising its research outcomes. In the gap funding of projects, ETPL collaborates with industry and A*STAR research institutes to identify research in new technology areas so as to co-develop innovative products and services. This funding is especially relevant if (1) potential licensees adopt A*STAR technologies, (2) further research and/or development is required for these technologies to be market ready and (3) potential licensees are willing to work together with ETPL and the research institutes to develop their innovations.

Early stage funding and start-up capital from Startup SG

Startup SG provides entrepreneurs with a launch pad and a platform to connect them to the global stage and access to local support initiatives. There are several initiatives offered by Startup SG to support start-ups in their entrepreneurship journey. Startup SG Tech provides early-stage funding for commercialization of tech ideas. Startup SG Founder provides mentorship and startup capital grant to first-time entrepreneurs with innovative business ideas. Startup SG Infrastructure provides startups with the spaces that they need to grow, experiment and flourish.

 

Conferences

Finally, how do you connect with investors who may invest in your enterprise? Attend conferences of course! There are several conferences and conventions to choose from such as Phar-East, the Singapore Week of Innovation & Technology (SWITCH), Slush, TechInnovation and Innovfest unbound.

Phar-East is a leading pharma and biotechnology festival in Asia. Attendees, sponsors, speakers and exhibitors come from diverse areas of biotechnology such as immunotherapy, vaccines and biotechnology innovation. Slush is a student-driven non-profit movement which aims to change attitudes towards entrepreneurship. It facilitates founder and investor meetings so as to build a global startup community. InnovFest unbound is a partnership between NUS Enterprise and London-based company unbound. InnovFest unbound brings together researchers in the Asian and Western communities as well as corporates, start-ups and policy makers, thus introducing new perspectives into the technology and innovation space.

SWITCH, organized by SGInnovate and the National Research Foundation (NRF) is a new platform for complementing tech and innovation events to come together. Activities which take place during SWITCH include exhibitions, conferences, workshops and events focussing on topics such as open innovation, technology transfer, tech entrepreneurship, venture funding, and talent development.

So what are you waiting for? Be a bio-entrepreneur today!

Photo: Burst

Daphne Ng is the Communications Lead at Biotech Connection Singapore. When she is not at the laboratory running experiments, she writes articles about bio-entrepreneurship.

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