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US$789m research hub reaping rewards for S'pore's economy

Publication Date : 31-12-2013

 

A decade ago, this corner of Buona Vista was nothing more than a wide expanse of undeveloped land.

After almost S$1 billion (US$789 million) of investment, the science hub now features a dazzling collection of 13 futuristic complexes.

Sky bridges and wide walkways connect the buildings, and the grounds are lush with ferns, flowers and fountains.

On a typical work day, the lunch crowd at the food courts and cafes here almost rivals the Central Business District.

But the conversations are more likely to centre on scientific experiments and laboratory work rather than on finance and markets.

Here, scientists have discovered a way to minimise tissue damage after a heart attack, engineered nanoparticles that can fight brain infections, and developed diagnostic methods to identify the H1N1 swine flu virus.

This is Biopolis, the heart of Singapore's efforts to position itself as a global biomedical hub and workplace of choice for the world's best scientists.

The aim: To build a thriving base of both local and foreign talent in a high value-added sector that has become a key pillar of the Singapore economy.

The research hub, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in October, hosts nine research institutes under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), and nearly 40 corporate research labs. These include facilities belonging to global companies such as Novartis, Danone, Abbott and Procter & Gamble.

No effort has been spared to make working here a dream - libraries, cutting-edge equipment, labs, amphitheatres, animal testing facilities, and cafes and shops where researchers can hang out during their downtime.

Every day, more than 2,500 researchers work to tackle tropical diseases, conduct stem cell research, develop new drugs and study skin ageing - among many other scientific endeavours.

Measuring success

Dr Benjamin Seet, executive director of A*Star's Biomedical Research Council, is sometimes asked if the agency has anything to show for all this investment.

"The typical cynic will ask, 'Where is Singapore's Nobel prize winner, blockbuster drug or billion dollar pharmaceutical company?'" said Dr Seet, who joined A*Star in 2011.

"If any of that happens, great, we will definitely celebrate. But it is not what we directly set out to achieve."

Singapore is a "pragmatic country", and the main goal of developing a facility such as Biopolis was to bring in investments and jobs that would contribute to economic growth, he said.

When Biopolis was first conceptualised in the early 2000s, the biomedical sciences industry here was in its infancy.

The Economic Development Board (EDB) was only just starting to promote Singapore as a place for multinational drug companies to set up manufacturing facilities.

One of the industry's most vocal champions was Philip Yeo, former chairman of A*Star and recognised widely as one of the architects of Singapore's economic development programme.

Yeo, who now heads enterprise development agency Spring Singapore, aggressively recruited senior scientists - or "whales" as he called them - from around the world to kick-start Singapore's foray into the biomedical sciences.

"I have to con them to come here. The word 'con' comes from 'convince'. I convince them, I say, 'Look, this is what I want to do. I think it can be done. Can you help me?'" Yeo said in a recent interview for a commemorative book released by A*Star.

Growing the biodiversity industry

Pharmaceutical giant Novartis' research facility was among the first labs to move into Biopolis in 2004.

Called the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases (NITD), it was set up in partnership with the EDB and focuses on making treatments readily available in developing countries where tropical diseases are most prevalent.

The facility employs about 100 scientists, physicians and business professionals.

While Novartis has similar research facilities elsewhere in the world, its presence in Singapore is unique, said a spokesman for the company.

"Singapore offered a promising setting for tropical disease studies. With a leading research and technical infrastructure, the country attracts the brightest talent in the tropical disease space," the spokesman said.

Singapore is also "surrounded by countries that offer easy access to patient populations".

Since setting up the NITD, Novartis has expanded its presence in Singapore, and is now home to its Asia-Pacific head offices, two production facilities for its eye-care division, a pharmaceutical manufacturing site and a new biologics facility.

Biologics refers to drugs, including vaccines, made from proteins produced by cell cultures rather than by synthesising drugs from chemicals.

Biopolis' first phase of construction, completed in 2004, comprised seven buildings and cost S$500 million (US$395 million).

Since then, three more phases have been completed, with a final phase - comprising two blocks - expected to be completed next month.

Over the years, the biomedical sector in Singapore has expanded in tandem with Biopolis.

In 2000, the sector contributed 10 per cent to Singapore's manufacturing value-added. Last year, biomedical manufacturing was the largest contributor to total manufacturing value-added at 26 per cent.

Employment in the sector has also more than doubled, from 6,000 to 15,700 in the same period.

Where there was only one medical school before, Singapore now has three. The number of biomedical sciences research institutes has also burgeoned, from one to at least 13 today.

One relative newcomer is Japanese bio-pharmaceutical company Chugai, which moved into Biopolis last year.

Its facility here specialises in creating new antibody drugs.

A Chugai spokesman said: "(We chose to establish a facility in Singapore) because of the possibility of accelerating the development of revolutionary drugs, leveraging on not just the best-of-class environment, but also the synergies from the tripartite collaboration between industry, government and academia."

Singaporeans in sciences

Though the biomedical sciences industry has come a long way in the past decade, a large portion of its talent still comes from abroad.

Training a researcher can take almost a decade, and Singapore's biomedical sciences industry is only slightly older than that.

About half of A*Star's research scientists and engineers are Singaporeans, while the other half are foreigners.

Dr Lisa Ng, a principal investigator with A*Star's Singapore Immunology Network, said Singapore has become more internationally renowned in the sciences since the 1990s, when she started her career.

She said: "Singaporeans are still a minority in the field, but I don't see that as a problem - it is an opportunity to learn... As scientists, we can't work in isolation.

"The industry and community here are still relatively young."

The 40-year-old is well-known in the scientific community here for her research into the containment, prevention and treatment of epidemic viral infections, including Sars.

Professor B. Venkatesh, a research director at A*Star's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), said there are now more opportunities open to young scientists.

Prof Venkatesh, who is in his late 50s, and has worked at IMCB for 22 years, said: "IMCB was the first institute set up by A*Star, and in the beginning, we felt very isolated... There was nothing much else happening in the industry here.

"Back then, there were very few of us at IMCB, and I was on a first-name basis with everyone... Now, the whole industry is so much larger."

He has reason to be happy about this - his daughter Aparna Venkatesh, 29, also works in Biopolis as a research fellow at the Biomedical Sciences Institutes' Molecular Engineering Laboratory.

Dr Aparna Venkatesh said: "I used to visit my father's lab as a kid and got to interact with a lot of scientists... I still see some of them around here sometimes, and they are surprised to see me all grown up."

Drawing international talent

Before he came here, French citizen Bruno Reversade "had no idea where or what Singapore was about", and had "never been to Asia".

The 39-year-old received job offers from the United States, Europe and Japan after completing his PhD, but a meeting with Yeo and the lure of being able to head his own lab here convinced him to come to Singapore.

He moved here six years ago with his family, and now lives just a stone's throw away from his workplace in Biopolis, where he is a researcher at A*Star's Institute of Medical Biology.

"My wife is not a scientist and has a career of her own... A*Star was able to help make her transfer easier too, and that was what really convinced us to move," said the father of three.

The 12 researchers who work in Dr Reversade's lab come from regions as diverse as China, Israel and Europe - a reflection of the cultural and racial mix at Biopolis.

Researchers hail from more than 70 countries, and a visitor is likely to hear accents from all around the globe.

Yuichiro Shimizu, a Japanese researcher with Chugai, moved to Singapore with his family last year when the company set up its antibody drug research centre in Biopolis.

"In Japan, the Chugai facility is located in an industrial estate near Mount Fuji, and there are no other pharmaceutical companies in the area," said the father of two.

"Here, there is greater potential to make connections with researchers from other institutions... Sometimes, there are also symposiums held here."

The 39-year-old added that the family has found it easy to settle in Singapore - "it is easy to find Japanese food and shopping here".

Now that Singapore has established itself as a biomedical research hub, it can "begin to be more demanding" in bringing in foreign researchers, "because people know this is a great place for science", said Dr Reversade.

However, to continue attracting top talent from abroad and keep the momentum going, foreigners need to feel at home here, he said.

"There are now a lot of other countries that are trying to do similar things. Singapore has to bring in the best people who are thinking in disruptive ways... Local or foreign, it shouldn't matter where they are from," he said.

 

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