Singapore: Slowly-Surely Cementing Place In World Biotech

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It is worth noting that Singapore may still be waiting for its first biotech bellwether, but it has for sure turned a corner in the eyes of many across the West. An advent of investor interest as well as the recent launches when it comes to minded incubators across the country go on to signify a big leap forward when it comes to giving attention to the country.

However, it is worth noting that Singapore happens to be facing the same questions as other emerging hubs, and that’s what it requires to do to make its position strong as far as the global biotech map is concerned.

Apparently, the second half of last year went on to bring a flurry of news from Singapore, like the launches of three incubator-like initiatives as well as a steady stream of company foundations and financings. Teamed with its established expertise across the manufacturing gamut and the growing number of Western as well as Chinese-based companies that go on to view the island nation as a geopolitically secure place so as to conduct business, Singapore happens to have fair grounds for optimism that reflect the fact that it can indeed grow its footprint in terms of a biotech hub.

Although the growth has waxed as well as waned across the past 20-plus years, the same stretch has gone on to see many regions try with varied degrees of success so as to establish biotech hubs. For Singapore, it is indeed quite clear that homegrown start-ups have to look beyond the country’s borders for a pretty sizable market for their products and also for the funding as well as expertise that happen to be still limited within the region.

The CEO of ClavystBio, Khoo Shih, opined that the idea is to get start-ups to think from a global perspective right from day one.

Notably, ClavystBio was created by one of Singaporean worldwide investment company named Temasek and happens to be among the driving forces as far as the maturation of Singapore’s life sciences ecosystem is concerned. The firm went on to formally open the life sciences partnership space for the newly formed companies, by the name of Node 1, on October 4, 2023.

As per Khoo Shih, the idea is to give companies support that goes on to extend beyond funding, thereby aiding them raise the profile as well as expanding their network so as to seek broader investor guidance and potential partners. They believe in worldwide connectivity, thereby creating partnerships and getting along from a global perspective.

Apparently, hindsight will say if this will be the turning point, however, the momentum across the end of 2023 has had enough heavy hitters that it is most likely to bring new eyes as far as the opportunities from stakeholders are concerned, who, by the way, have not yet paid attention.

Momentum play

In October 2023, the day after Node 1 was announced, ClavystBio, with the syndicate of three other VCs like Leaps by Bayer, Polaris Partners as well as Lightstone Ventures, and also Germany’s Evotec SE, went ahead and launched 65Lab, which happens to be an early-stage incubator that looks to move academic projects by way of the steps toward company formation.

It is well to be noted that 65Lab is all set to invest almost $1.5 million in every project in the next 18-24 months, thereby also providing mentorship simultaneously and advancing the projects to the point where they can go ahead and attract start-up investments. Graduates from 65Lab could very well be the candidates for entering ClavystBio’s partnership spectrum. Evotec happens to bring drug development expertise to the initiative and has even gone on to establish a physical site at the incubator.

Together, 65Lab as well as Node 1 go on to create a continuum of support when it comes to translating Singapore’s best science within the commercial development plans, and they go on to join other incubator-type initiatives within the region like A*STAR’s Innovation & Enterprise office, which looks to do more company creation in the times to come, said the director of venture creation and growth, Su Ling Yeo.

A*STAR, which happens to be the Agency for Science, Technology, and Research, happens to be one of the many local agencies that engage with external stakeholders so as to ramp up involvement across Singapore.

Interestingly, Johnson & Johnson has also gone ahead and joined a government-backed entity in order to build its presence across the early-stage start-up spectrum.

On Sept. 27 last year, Johnson & Johnson Innovation as well as Singapore’s Economic Development Board went ahead and came up with an initiative by way of which J&J will go ahead and offer resources so as to support translational projects, work with capital sources, and also draw talent to the country.

The fact is that it is not just Western companies as well as investors that are setting up shop in Singapore, even prominent players from China also go on to see the value when it comes to doing business there. WuXi Biologics Inc. went ahead and announced in 2022 that it was going to be setting up a CRDMO center in the country, which would go on to offer R&D services as well as other large-scale manufacturing facilities when it comes to biologics.

Other major companies that have gone on to place certain significant bets within the region recently go on to include BioNTech SE, which went ahead and announced in May 2021 that it would establish its very first mRNA manufacturing facility in the country.

Notably, the site is going to represent the Asia regional headquarters when it comes to BioNTech, a choice that goes on to bridge between the manufacturing center, which Singapore has been known for as BioNTech has gone ahead and acquired the GMP-certified manufacturing facility from Novartis AG, and the center when it comes to innovation that the city-state looks to become. Apart from mRNA-based vaccines as well as therapeutics, the facility may as well expand its presence into other drug classes like cell therapies, thereby creating a talent base across next-generation modalities from which companies would be able to recruit as they go ahead and move into clinical development.

Moderna Inc., which is BioNTech’s mRNA competitor, announced in 2022 that Singapore will house one of the four subsidiaries it was looking to establish across  Asia when it comes to manufacturing and distributing its COVID-19 vaccine as well as future mRNA vaccines along with therapeutics. The other three subsidiaries would be in Hong Kong, Malaysia, as well as Taiwan.

Venture rising

The momentum happens to be reinforced due to the rising venture activity from Western as well as Chinese VCs building their activity and presence across Singapore.

In November 2023, Flagship Pioneering went on to announce the opening of a regional hub in Singapore as it looks to expand across the Asia-Pacific region.

Also in November last year, the Seattle-based Accelerator Life Science Partners, which has a permanent presence within the country now, announced its very first investment within the region, co-leading $16mnn series A round with ClavystBio in Automera Pte. Ltd., a start-up with a new take as far as targeted protein degradation is concerned.

When we talk of China, CBC went ahead and moved its headquarters to Singapore from Shanghai, whereas Lyfe Capital is going to set up an office as well as build its presence across the region.

It is worth noting that a minimum of 12 venture rounds happened to be disclosed by Singapore-based biotechs last year, with a slight rise over 2022, even as a prolonged downturn slowed venture funding elsewhere.

Although the numbers are a bit pale as compared to the U.K., they are indeed not far off of the venture activity across other European countries, which have, by the way, been pretty steady contributors when it comes to global biotech. Furthermore, the buildup across the last three years, in the context of stated intent coming from Polaris, Novo Holdings, Flagship, Lightstone, etc., could very well go on to encourage the next innovators so as to take an entrepreneurial route.

The drive happens to be clearly in early-stage funding when it comes to Singapore biotechs. In 2021-23, of the 34 financings that happened to be raised by 29 companies, a minimum of 44% were seed or series-A rounds- 3 and 12, respectively. The proportion may be even higher as 10 of the rounds happened to have undisclosed series.

Interestingly, Polaris happens to be one of the most renowned Western VCs in the region, with its managing partner, Amy Schulman, saying that she sees loads of academic science hungry to be translated that dovetails with the business-friendly environment of Singapore.

Novo Holdings has also gone on to plant a footprint in Singapore by establishing an Asian life sciences platform in 2020 so as to invest in three of its life science funding areas across Asia: Principal Investments: when it comes to established companies; Novo Growth: in terms of expansion capital; and Novo Ventures: pertaining to venture-stage biotech.

Lightstone, on the other hand, has been dedicated so as to help build the start-up spectrum. It went on to create a $50 million Singapore-focused fund in 2016 that has gone on to invest in biotechs like Allay Therapeutics Inc., MediSix Therapeutics Pte. Ltd., and Locanabio Inc., as well as Gemini Therapeutics Inc., which went ahead and reverse-merged to form Disc Medicine Inc. in 2022.

As per CEO Adam Gridley of Allay, Lightstone could see an opportunity so as to develop the tech for polymer-based drug delivery, for instance, through implants that can go on to steadily release non-opioid analgesics in weeks rather than days.

The fact is that much of the momentum in the last few years has been to fill that gap, with an intent to create infrastructure that can enable companies to create product engines that go from preclinical proof of mechanism to clinical proof of concept.

Despite the surge in Western VC interest, the most active investors in 2021-23 happened to be government-backed venture arms.

In order to be a sustainable ecosystem, Singapore has been able to weather some failures too. Apparently, Tessa Therapeutics Ltd., an immunotherapy company, shuttered one year after raising a $126 million Series A round, which was led by Polaris, as it was unable to raise more funds or even find a buyer because of the tough financing environment at the time. All this has not deterred Polaris, which went ahead and led a $27 million series A round for Engine Biosciences Pte. Ltd., a Singapore-based company, in October last year.

Notably, with many of Singapore’s present crop of companies now in the clinic, the next step is going to be generating meaningful clinical data, which can go ahead and also drive broader as well as sustained investor interest in order to fuel the next phase of growth.