Singapore set out on a journey to become a biotech hub back in 2000 when the local government made biomedical research the “fourth pillar” of the city state’s economy in what’s known as the National Biomedical Science Strategy. Under that initiative, Singapore in 2003 established Biopolis, a custom-built biomedical R&D hub.
Billions of dollars were pumped into the life sciences sector over the next 20 years, new research institutes and government agencies were formed, and biopharma companies large and small set up shops. But biotech is still hardly the first thing that comes to mind when people think about Singapore.
Singapore still needs a big success story, said Christopher Tan, a biotech investor who has experience in both the U.S. and Singapore. Tan is a partner at Outram Bio, an emerging venture capital firm in Singapore.
“We’ve invested in the long haul, we have seen some early green shoots, some small wins,” Tan said. “Still waiting for the big ones. No Modernas yet. But I think it’s a journey.”
Litmus paper of interest
The Singapore government has been “banging the drum,” while private investment in the country took a long time to understand drug development, said Guy Heathers, a serial entrepreneur in Singapore. And success is becoming what he called the “litmus paper of interest.”
Singapore came so close to a major breakthrough several times, but its biotech pH kept falling off balance. Nasdaq-listed Aslan Pharmaceuticals appeared to be the wunderkind with the chops to do it—until its lead drug, a pan-HER inhibitor called varlitinib, failed in a midstage trial in 2019.
Cell therapy specialist Tessa Therapeutics was once on the rise, with a lead CD30-targeted candidate in phase 3 development. But the company surprisingly shut down a few weeks ago after raising more than $200 million in funding, far more than many other Singapore-based biotechs have managed. No cost-cutting plan, no strategic pivot. The dramatic shutdown inevitably creates a negative sentiment in Singapore’s local biotech ecosystem, said Heathers, who previously served a few years as vice president of business development at Tessa. Heathers is currently chief business officer of a preclinical-stage biotech called Albatroz Therapeutics, which is funded by Tan’s Outram.
In another setback that could put a damper on Singapore’s biotech scene, Aum Biosciences, a midstage company working on cancer therapeutics, in June terminated a SPAC deal with Nasdaq-listed Mountain Crest Acquisition Corp V.
Heathers is now concerned that private investors, who tend to be generalists in Singapore, might back away from biotech before new sparks of success can rekindle their interest. “When you get examples of companies making money for investors—being bought out by pharma or being exited on Nasdaq—it’s becoming real for a lot of investors,” he said.
If a major success is defined as having a drug approved in the U.S., then Singapore boasts one such case. Last year, CTI Biopharma won FDA approval for JAK inhibitor Vonjo as a myelofibrosis treatment. The molecule was originally developed by S*BIO, a Singapore biotech that has long ceased to exist.
But if Big Pharma recognition is considered the bar to meet, Singapore had that, too. Last year, Boehringer Ingelheim signed a broad licensing deal to develop tumor-specific agents such as antibody-drug conjugates and T-cell engagers based on a panel of antibodies by Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).
We’re very focused on doing really good science, but we are kind of unwilling to pound the table and say, ‘Look at me.’” — Christopher Tan
It may not be that Singapore lacks quality innovation. As in Vonjo’s case, people simply didn’t remember Singapore’s contribution.
“We need to do a better job of surfacing good signs in front of the decision-makers […] who have the power of the pen to say, ‘Look, that’s really interesting,’” Tan said. “Culturally, I think we’ve been a bit more reticent. We’re very focused on doing really good science, but we are kind of unwilling to pound the table and say, ‘Look at me.’”
“When somebody sees, ‘oh, my god, here’s something that’s come out of Singapore that’s been approved, that’s really having that global impact,’ I think that will change the attention,” said Damian O’Connell, CEO of A*STAR’s Experimental Drug Development Centre (EDDC).
But one-offs won’t move the needle. Singapore needs to be a “serial winner” with a “critical mass” of similarly positive news to make people really recognize its place in the whole drug ecosystem, O’Connell said. He believes that the country has put together the necessary components, and it’s only time before more successes come out.
“I’m convinced that we’re on the right trajectory,” O’Connell said. “I’m convinced that in the next five years or so, that we will have an emergence of good stories coming out of the [Singapore] biotech ecosystem.”
The baton for the most promising Singapore biotech seems to have passed to Hummingbird Bioscience, which made a splash in 2021 by raising $125 million in a series C round led by Novo Holdings. Developing antibody drugs for cancer and autoimmune disease, Hummingbird has only reached phase 1 in the clinic. Aslan also remains in the game with eczema candidate eblasakimab having just posted some mixed phase 2 results.