In this interview, Daphne Teo, CEO and Founder of NSG BioLabs, shares her insights and understanding of the innovative biotech ecosystem in Singapore and Asia. She elaborates on the opportunities for biotech startups and the kind of support they need to solve some of the biggest medical challenges of the 21st century.
I was born in Singapore and from very early on had a deep love for science and physics, as I had a curiosity to understand the natural world and also to work on technical ways to address problems. This led me to pursue a bachelor’s degree in engineering at Purdue and a master’s degree in engineering at Stanford.
I made the jump from engineering to investment banking where I worked at HSBC and Goldman Sachs in Singapore and Hong Kong, as I wanted to understand the integral role of finance and capital in businesses seeking to build and commercialise products. Eventually, I returned to help the family real estate business in securing investment and developing real estate in various regions across Southeast Asia and North America.
After some successes and learnings outside of biotech, my fellow co-founders of Engine Biosciences and I developed novel concepts for drug discovery, including AI and bioengineering approaches, that led to the company. With my science background, I thought it was quite apt, drawing from the technical and engineering training that I had in college.
Engine Biosciences gave me a first-hand, founder’s perspective of the challenges in setting up the must-have infrastructure for science. I was inspired to develop a solution for the general biotech ecosystem and help many founders in their fundamental issues, and I founded NSG BioLabs, a co-working laboratory and office space that aims to provide a conducive environment for biotech companies in Singapore to grow, scale and commercialise their operations. This has been a culmination of my interests and educational background in science and engineering, as well as my experiences working in finance and real estate.
Singapore has had a multi-decade, longterm vision for building a world-class biomedical cluster. This is evidenced by the many billions of dollars invested in basic research at universities and research institutes, growing clinical infrastructure, funding many scholars to study overseas to further their studies in science and technology, drawing multinational pharmaceutical companies to the country, and directly providing capital to startups. I am heartened to see vocal support for the industry from the highest levels on down, and then to see follow-through with actions from the public sector in many meaningful ways.
Singapore’s handling of the pandemic has been data-driven, sensitive to clinical considerations, and pragmatic. This has also helped to attract more biotechnology investments and innovative projects, including but not limited to nucleic acid, vaccine, and genetic medicine projects.
The country continues to be a strategic launch pad for businesses around the world looking to expand into new markets in the region. It also provides a reliable and stable business climate, rich talent base and a growing biotechnology industry for both well-established and young biotech companies to take advantage and potentially scale further.
Despite significant advances in the sector, biotech companies in Singapore continue to face challenges in their growth ambitions. Emerging biotech companies require conducive collaborative space, high-end laboratory equipment, expert guidance and community support to achieve breakthrough results. Recruiting and retaining key talent is critical for biotech companies, yet can be very difficult anywhere, especially in Asia where the biotech ecosystem is more nascent than in the US.
Mentorship is also an important component in helping young biotech companies in Asia. Young or firsttime CEOs usually require guidance throughout their journey, so having great scientific and business advisors, access to key opinion leaders, strong investors and board directors is critical to their success. Connecting young companies to these experts can be invaluable as company leaders navigate the twists and turns of building great companies.
Unfortunately, there are huge unmet needs around the world that lead to too many health issues and deaths. Addressing cancer continues to be a major issue, which many companies are focusing on and making progress in, but it’s not enough. Central nervous system (CNS) disease continues to be a major issue, especially considering ageing populations, but the sector needs to make more progress.
There are also major opportunities for medical breakthroughs in inflammatory diseases. Finally, infectious diseases have been historically under-invested in relative to the needs; COVID-19 has made people more alert to the issues, but we need to see more continued investment to address existing and future infectious diseases. The human, societal, and economic impact has proven to be tremendous and worth preparing for.
Firstly, more focus on the region’s needs and supporting the burgeoning R&D ecosystems from large pharma companies would be very helpful. It is important for leaders to showcase the innovation and the opportunities in the region and inspire more activity and investment.
Secondly, regulators across the region could explore avenues to promote innovative R&D, including encouraging clinical trials in challenging diseases.
Thirdly, finding ways to compile population-level and patient data across the region, spanning the diversity and leveraging the large aggregate populations that exist, would be a huge driver of new R&D and products that are designed for the needs of the people in our region.