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Building Buzz in Singapore

The hub is selling location, talent, and the Biopolis of Asia.

By Allison Proffitt

June 10, 2008 | SINGAPORE - In Singapore, the food is fantastic, the weather is warm, and the news is always good for scientific investment. At least that's the general impression. It can seem a little too good to be true, and you have to wonder about a massive public relations machine churning out glossy brochures and happy scientists in some back room.

But the country has built its buzz on a solid foundation. Like the three rules of real estate-location, location, location-Singapore sells its proximity to India, China, and the rest of Asia while boasting an English-speaking business environment and a very well-established infrastructure.

Then, of course, there's the issue of stem cells. While many Western countries are still embroiled in bioethical debates, Singapore supports and works to enable stem cell research. For many companies, that's the clincher. "We are focusing on oncology and diabetes drug discovery with cutting edge genomics technologies and stem cell research. Singapore has become the central location for these activities," says Yaron Turpaz at the Lilly Singapore Centre for Drug Discovery.

Beyond this solid footing, the country has even more money and achievements to back up its claims.

The goal is nothing less than the "Biopolis of Asia," a hub in the heart of Southeast Asia for research, manufacturing, and all things science. Funded by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the Biopolis R&D campus is the effort's nucleus and crowning achievement. The vision calls for "an international biomedical science cluster advancing human health through the pursuit of excellence in research & development, manufacturing, and health care delivery." It's a wide scope encompassing basic and clinical research, manufacturing, product and process development, and health care-a lot for an island nation comprising 704 square kilometers.

But the commitment seems strong. The effort boasts an international advisory board featuring scientists from the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, and Canada. The public sector R&D budget nearly doubled from $6.9 billion (2001-2005) to $13.55 billion for 2006 to 2010.

Gained in Translation
The focus of all this funding is translational research. "As a logical extension of our work thus far," said Singaporean Minister for Health Boon Wan Khaw at the American Association of Cancer Research meeting last November, "we are moving into translational and clinical research [for cancer] with $1 billion of government funding committed."

Paul Herrling, head of corporate research, Novartis International, believes that Singapore is the place for bench-to-bedside research: "It's not the place you go to do very large phase 3 clinical studies. However, because it has a highly sophisticated hospital environment, and in addition, a very concentrated environment of basic biomedical sciences, drug discovery specialists, they are ideally suited to do scientific studies in patients, your proof of concept studies."

Paul Chapman, director of GlaxoSmithKline's Cognition and Neurodegeneration Centre agrees. "I think that Singapore has wisely chosen translational science as essentially a clinical niche for them," he said. "Because the patient populations are concentrated [and] because record keeping and sharing is very good, the opportunity to do that sort of early phase experimental translational medicine is a very obtainable goal."

In fact, phase two of the Biopolis project focuses heavily on translational research initiatives, including almost 400,000 square feet of new lab and office space and centers, investigator awards, and programs highlighting translational research. The forces behind the Biopolis movement include A*STAR, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Bio*One Capital, and Singapore's Economic Development Board (EDB), working with the public and private sectors.

A*STAR manages the R&D fund from the Singaporean government. Within A*STAR, two research councils fund 14 established research institutes, including the Bioinformatics Institute, the Genome Institute of Singapore, the Centre for Molecular Medicine, and the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences along with additional research institutes located in an engineering cluster, chemicals cluster, information and communications cluster, and electronics cluster. If it's a growing area of science, A*STAR has a research institute for it.

The Biopolis effort has already established recruiting programs, developed an R&D infrastructure on campus, and built basic research capabilities. The Biopolis Science Park campus currently has nine tightly packed buildings housing the A*STAR research institutes and various corporate headquarters and offices. Named Nanos, Centros, Genome, Matrix, and the like, the steel and glass structures are nested together like an angular jigsaw puzzle. Three more buildings are planned for a total of 2.4 million square feet of office and laboratory space housing 2,000 scientists and 20 companies. The goal is to foster community and collaboration within the park. Common areas feature cafes and a dry cleaner; there's talk of a day care on site.

At the Genome Institute of Singapore, an A*STAR institute in the Genome building on the Biopolis campus, director Edison Liu believes that Singapore is "uniquely suited" to collaborative research, and the environment is only encouraged by the Biopolis footprint (See, "From Genomes to Systems," Bio•IT World, February 2008).

"There's an insularity that you sometimes get in organizations that are set out by themselves, apart from everybody else," agrees Chapman. "We don't have that here. Our scientists are talking to people from Novartis, and they're talking to people from the research institutes and there is a sense of a larger community."

"The fact that you physically bump into and interact [with other scientists]... there's more passing of ideas and interactions than you'd get with other facilities," adds Neil Miller, director of Medicinal Chemistry at GSK's Cognition and Neurodegeneration Centre.

"One of the critically important things for the long term is that collaborations don't just happen," says Chapman. "In fact the collaborations that tend not to work are the ones where the government puts out a grant proposal and says, 'You guys will get money if you bring in [specific partners].' And everybody looks for these partners that they can put down on paper together to do the research that they always wanted to do anyway. Where real genuine partnerships and collaborations come around is where people know each other and trust each other... When one day you say, 'We've really got this problem; I wonder how we can get around this?' to the guys you're used drinking coffee with."

Lilly moved its newly-renamed Lilly Singapore Centre for Drug Discovery to Biopolis in March. The combined spaces in the Immunos and Neuros buildings include wet lab and informatics facilities in three functional units. The systems biology unit was established three years ago and focuses on biomarker discovery in oncology. The two new departments are Drug Discovery Research, which focuses on wet lab research in oncology and diabetes, and the Integrative Computational Sciences department, which focuses on the integration of heterogeneous datasets, algorithm development, statistical analysis, and integrated data analysis workflows, which eventually get wrapped up into state of the art software tools for global implementation and usage by scientists across all disease types at Lilly.

Singapore is now Lilly's research hub in Asia. "If you look at the seminars that are provided at Biopolis," says Turpaz, director of the center's Integrative Computational Sciences department, "then you will see that the audience is coming together from different companies and different government institutions to discuss how, through joint efforts, they can deliver the next generation of medicines and scientific discovery."

For Lilly, expanding in Singapore was a multi-faceted decision. "Strategically, it's about expanding into Asia, leveraging the talent found in Asia, [and] establishing a lot of collaboration with academia and industry in Singapore and the region," says Turpaz. For years, Lilly and other pharmaceutical companies were focused on a centralized model as a fully integrated pharmaceutical company (FIPCO).  Turpaz says Lilly is now following a new model called FIPNET-fully integrated pharmaceutical network. "This is all about focusing on networking and outsourcing, as well as collaboration and risk sharing. And the key issue behind it, and the main difference between simple outsourcing, which has been done for years, is not to centralize everything in one location. Each of the hubs, such as Singapore, is generating a lot of collaboration and decision-making. And that's a change in mindset and strategy."

An hour-long cab drive across the island is Tuas, the manufacturing center, and there the same buzzwords are being thrown around. "There's a lot of interaction between the pharma companies," says Brian Hanifin, managing director and site head of Novartis Singapore Pharmaceutical Manufacturing. "We go to lunch together. We talk together. We meet with the EDB on a regular basis. We're not a number. It's exciting because there's so much going on and I can see 15 [other manufacturing] plants pretty much in my windows."

Built in 2004, Hanifin's twenty-acre facility is the first Novartis manufacturing plant in Singapore. The facility can handle six billion tablets for the U.S. and Japanese markets. It is part of a network of Novartis properties in Singapore including the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases (NITD), located in Biopolis, the Novartis eye care division, and regional sales and marketing offices. Novartis is currently constructing a $700 million cell culture production facility to support the Novartis pipeline of biologics, specifically monoclonal antibodies manufacturing products. Building should conclude in 2012.   

"Scientists go where there is an environment," says Herrling. "Scientists don't work anymore like loners in their own basement without interacting. They are very much part of a culture, especially biomedical sciences... so you have to be in a place where all the kinds of sciences you need for biomedical [research]-and that's chemistry, physics, computing, genomics, robotics by now, electronics, all the way to biology, of course, and medicine-have to be there." The list should sound familiar; Herrling covers almost all of A*STAR's areas of focus.

Pharma Presence
While the research institutes sound like a wish list of research areas, Singapore boasts an impressive list of pharma companies with either R&D or manufacturing facilities in Singapore. Add industry giants such as Genentech, Genzyme, Applied Biosystems, and Affymetrix, currently relocating most of its array manufacturing to Singapore, and you begin to wonder where they put the buildings.

In March, GlaxoSmithKline opened an $85 million R&D pilot plant in Singapore, to accommodate the final phase of drug development. PerkinElmer named Singapore its R&D hub as well, with a new facility in Singapore. In February, Pfizer opened a new clinical research unit on the island.

The EDB works to support local companies and recruit and aid companies seeking to set up shop in the tropics. "Singapore has made significant headway in terms of nurturing homegrown biotech companies such as MerLion Pharmaceuticals and S*Bio.  Both companies have products undergoing clinical trials at present.  S*Bio just received orphan drug approval from FDA to conduct clinical trials for a drug to cure myeloproliferative disorders (MPD), a disease which if untreated can lead to cardiovascular diseases and leukaemia," says Keat-Chuan Yeoh, executive director, biomedical sciences, EDB.

Their work with outside industry speaks for itself. Herrling says that EDB help was critical in helping Novartis set up NITD so quickly. Elsewhere, he says, "you have to run around to different ministries and get permission left and right and [the process] goes on forever. But the concept in Singapore was different because the EDB assigns a team of young people, mostly Ph.D.s that will be your liaison, so anything you need from the building to work permits, this team would put you together with the right people right away."

Hanifin agrees that political and social support is essential: "I would say location-wise and logistics, they have very sophisticated logistics operations that come from here, so all the importation and exportation is done very easily."

"We shouldn't underestimate the quality of the infrastructure here," says Miller. "We couldn't have established as quickly and to the same level of quality in the facility in any of the other countries in this region... It's well-supported. We can do science here."

Lilly has had a presence in Singapore for 20 years, with the establishment of a business office, followed by a clinical trial center, and recently with the addition of systems biology and new drug discovery center. "Our experience with the EDB has been absolutely great," says Turpaz. "The government and the EDB are supportive of research and generally of scientific activities in Singapore. The joint effort of Lilly and the EDB is well-established, and driven by innovation and scientific discovery."

Perfect People
The right location, the right companies, and the right infrastructure are all boons for Singapore. Yet executives continually mention the working climate and the people. In many ways, the allure is in the fresh field.

According to the government, Singapore's 2005 population topped 4.3 million and included almost 800,000 expatriates and migrant workers. Talent is essential to growing the type of biomedical research environment Singapore envisions, so phase one focused on attracting and developing human capital, or the "two-legged assets" as founding A*STAR chairman Philip Yeo calls them.

In recent years, Liu, Sir David Lane, Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner, Edward Holmes, and Judith Swain have all taken up directorships in Singapore, bringing a distinct element of star power to the venture. But the Biopolis team didn't stop at the "whales," as they call these researcher superstars-they went after "guppies" too. In order to develop talent in Singapore, the A*STAR Graduate Academy offers biomedical scholarships and fellowships to students to pursue undergraduate and graduate level education at local and overseas universities.

It's not just the public sector research that is finding the human capital eager to please, but industry is as well. Companies and organizations are finding a unique talent pool and culture in Singapore.

The most exciting attraction, says Chapman, is "the opportunity to have this fresh start to pull in a bunch of people here who don't know how they were supposed to do things and didn't know they were not supposed to do things differently. We have a lot of open-minded people here who didn't say, 'biology is biology and chemistry is chemistry, and there's a wall between them.' "

"We've recruited fairly heavily at the bachelor level in terms of chemists," says Miller, "and I do think they're producing good quality scientists." Miller says the depth at the highest (Ph.D.) levels might be lacking right now, but with current investment, that will change in a few years.

"We've found the same with the biology grads that we've hired," agrees Chapman.  "They're absolutely fantastic. They're very intelligent; they're well-trained; they're very hard working. They've got this real drive to broaden their skill base. That may just be a difference in attitude and approach. They're not here to say, 'Give me the job I'm going to have for the rest of my life.' They're here to say, 'Now how many different things can I learn to do? How much of this industry can I come to understand?' "

Miller agrees: "The view to life is very much, 'What can we do? We want to do it.' And that's refreshing. They're probably a little more receptive to change and doing things differently."

A*STAR is doing all it can to prepare Singaporean students and professionals to succeed in pharma. Together with the National University of Singapore (NUS), A*STAR and EDB have developed a host of focused education systems and attachment programs (similar to internships) to meet the needs of industry employers. In April, the National University of Singapore launched the Singapore Academy of GxP Excellence (SAGE)-a program designed to train high-quality workers for the pharma industry. Targeting pharma professionals, managers, executives, and technicians as well as those keen to move into the industry, SAGE offers continuing education for basic degree holders, diploma, and ITE qualifications. The Academy plans to train some 300 to 500 professionals annually.

"Part of [Lilly's] mission is giving back to the community by placing internally developed tools in the public domain and participating in the training of the next generation of scientists living in Singapore," says Turpaz. "In the coming years, we'll build a very experienced [work]force, and the people who come out of the industry in Singapore will be very valuable to the global scientific community." But while NUS and others are anxious to create curricula to equip Singaporean students to excel in the biopharma industry, that is a time consuming process.

The result is a very international community. At GIS, about 50% of the staff is from outside of Singapore, says Liu, and Herrling counts 22 countries represented among his NITD employees. Singapore has to entice not only the companies themselves, but the scientists too.

Not surprisingly, A*STAR has a plan for that as well. A*STAR Investigatorships offer outstanding young researchers positions at Biopolis research institutes for two to four years after their Ph.D. While postdocs are not particularly noteworthy, the $500,000 worth of funding for these positions per year for each lab is.

But aside from the salary, how does a country infamous for outlawing gum chewing present such a draw?

"Singapore is really a successful combination of the West and Asia" observed Turpaz. And within the diverse scientific constituencies in Singapore, there is a bond. "Within this community there's absolute social interaction... local and overseas," says Chapman of GSK parties. "Everybody has a great time together." The bond within the biomedical community is a key recruiting point. "It's been a real bonus for us... When people come out here and look around, they get hooked," Champan says.

Miller, formerly based in the United Kingdom, says, "It's a very easy place to live. It's functional. It's safe. It's warm. It's well-located for seeing the region."

While proximity can't be the only selling point, it's hard to overlook that you can be in Bali within two hours and Cambodia, Vietnam, or Australia for a weekend trip.

Miller also points out that some of Singapore's reputation for being "incredibly regulated" is undeserved. "When you get to a street corner and people are standing there waiting for the [walk signal] and there are no cars coming, they're tourists," he jokes.

Novartis' Hanifin moved his family from New York in August 2006. "It's a great place to be right now, because this area is really thriving and booming and there's just a lot of business going on here," he says. "[Personally] if schooling was all I was looking at, I would stay here until my kids went to college," he laughed.  "And you have the cultural diversity piece. [My kids are] meeting people from all over the world. For them, I think it's exciting too."

The Singapore buzz is building, and even for some of the seasoned transplants the bloom is not yet off the admittedly steamy rose. "[The heat] smacks you in the face even after three years," admits Chapman. But he is still happy to be a part of what's happening in Singapore. "Three years is certainly long enough for me to become disillusioned, and I'm not. I still have tremendous faith in the potential of Singapore biosciences and as much excitement about it as I had when I got here." 


This article appeared in Bio-IT World Magazine.

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