Singapore: Betting on Biomedical Sciences

The nation’s economy has evolved rapidly in just a few decades from labor-intensive manufacturing to high-tech production and now to corporate management and world-class research.

In an April 2009 report, the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council noted that Singapore, an emerging biotech cluster, was “aiming to move up the value chain and position itself as a world-class center for R&D through significant government investment.” Singapore’s key strengths, the report said, are its educated and skilled workforce; its supportive government, business, and regulatory environment; and its government-supported research institutes.

About a decade ago, Singapore decided to put a major national focus on biomedical sciences. It did so in part because of changes in the global economic arena. But the decision also reflected the evolving ways of thinking and doing that corresponded with Singapore’s rapid development since gaining nationhood in 1965.

In the 1960s, Singapore was a labor-intensive economy. In response to a poorly educated work force, labor strife, high unemployment, and a rapidly growing population, Singapore embarked on export-led industrialization and promoted foreign direct investment. It sought to develop its labor force by emphasizing technical and industrial training. The focus was on low-tech manufacturing.

The strategy worked well until the mid-1970s, when changes in the global economic environment prompted a new assessment. Singapore faced increasing competition from other developing countries in low-tech industries. Meanwhile, developed countries were moving into high-tech manufacturing. Singapore decided to phase out its labor-intensive industry and focus on skills-intensive, high–value-added, technology-intensive industries such as electronics manufacturing, data storage, and petrochemicals. To prepare its workforce for this new challenge, the country expanded engineering education while providing funding for older workers to upgrade their skills.

Singapore’s first major recession in 1985 spurred the country to look for new areas of economic growth. Its new strategy marketed Singapore as a place to do business and encouraged multinational companies in Singapore to move beyond production and into areas such as supply chain management, R&D, and the like. Multinational companies were encouraged to establish operational headquarters in Singapore to support their regional operations.

As the global economy continued to evolve, Singapore by the early 1990s began to face greater competition in its traditional economic strengths, including electronics manufacturing and petrochemicals. The critical challenge was to find ways to differentiate the country from its economic competitors in the region and the world. As a country with a population of fewer than 4 million and few natural resources, the only resource available was its people. Singapore concluded that it must promote strong intellectual capital creation as a basis for developing knowledge-intensive companies and generating high–value-added jobs for Singaporeans. In short, government officials believed that if Singapore was to join the ranks of the world’s leading industrialized countries, it must build a knowledge-based, innovation-driven economy.

In the late 1990s, Singapore identified the biomedical sciences as an area with tremendous growth potential. Between 2000 and 2005, it put in place the key building blocks to establish core scientific biomedical research capabilities by focusing on building up its human, intellectual, and industrial capital. In the second phase of the initiative (2006–2010), it focused on strengthening its capabilities in translational and clinical research in order to bring scientific discoveries from the bench to the bedside, to improve human health and health care delivery, and ultimately to contribute to the economy and bring benefits to society.

Reasons for success

Singapore was able to implement its biomedical sciences initiative and reap its benefits because of five key strengths that the country has developed during recent decades, a government committed to R&D, an integrated and well-connected public sector, public-sector research institutes that engage in both basic and mission-oriented R&D to develop a spectrum of capabilities, an educated and skilled workforce, and a supportive business and regulatory environment.

Singapore has made a huge commitment to develop and advance biomedical R&D. The significant investment began in 2001 and has been steadily increasing since. For the period 2006–2010, the government committed $13.5 billion in Singapore dollars (SGD) to R&D, more than double the spending of the preceding five-year period. Of this, 25.3% was committed to the biomedical secctor.

The government’s investment in biomedical sciences has been part of its overall commitment to achieving a gross expenditure on R&D (GERD) of 3% of the gross domestic product (GDP) by 2010. GERD grew rapidly at a compound annual rate of more than 11% from 2000 to 2008, an indication of the increasing intensity of R&D activities in Singapore. In 2008, GERD reached SGD $7.1 billion, or 2.8% of GDP. Recently, Singapore’s government accepted the recommendations by the Economic Strategies Committee to target GERD at 3.5% of GDP by 2015.

Boosting funding for biomedical R&D was just one prerequisite for success. A coordinated, intensive, nationwide approach was also essential. This was facilitated by Singapore’s small size. Its ministries and public-sector agencies have worked well together and have nimbly made changes over time to boost momentum. In an ever-changing global economic landscape, this integration and coordination have been essential.

Strategic direction for Singapore’s R&D initiatives is set by the Research, Innovation & Enterprise Council, chaired by the prime minister, and the key work is done by public-sector research institutes. The lead public-sector R&D agency, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), receives 40% of the total public-sector R&D funds to carry out various activities with its partners: institutes of higher learning, hospitals, other public-sector agencies, and industry. A*STAR has two councils: the Biomedical Research Council (BMRC) and the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC), to steer and support R&D activities in the biomedical sciences and the physical sciences and engineering, respectively.

The BMRC has seven research institutes and five research consortia under its umbrella. It has built up considerable strengths in six key research areas: biomedical engineering, cancer genetics, infectious disease and immunology, metabolic diseases, molecular cell and development biology, and stem cells and regenerative medicine. Because these research areas span the spectrum of biomedical sciences research, from basic to translational to clinical research, BMRC is well positioned to support industry activities at every step of the way. Indeed, the platform technologies being supported are aligned with four main industry sectors: biotechnology and biologics, health care services and delivery, medical engineering and technology, and pharmaceuticals. Singapore wants to leverage its investment in biomedical R&D to attract more industry to the country and create a sustainable biomedical sciences hub.

A*STAR’s other council, SERC, has seven research institutes and one center. It has built up strengths in eight key areas: biotechnology; chemistry; computational and device technologies; information, communications, and media; materials; manufacturing technology; mechatronics and automation; and metrology. Its research areas are also aligned with four main industry sectors: electronics, infocomm, chemicals, and engineering. Because the electronics and engineering industries have enjoyed a much longer history in Singapore, the main challenges are to continue to innovate in order to add value to current strengths in manufacturing processes and thus stay ahead of the crowd.

In 2009, A*STAR also set up the A*STAR Joint Council to facilitate interactions between BMRC and SERC in order to foster interdisciplinary and cross-council research. This is helped by the physical proximity of the two councils: BMRC’s research institutes are located in Biopolis, the biomedical sciences R&D hub, just 600 meters from SERC’s research institutes at Fusionopolis, the science and engineering powerhouse. Biopolis and Fusionopolis also house corporate laboratories and private-sector companies on their premises, which fosters ties between the public and private sectors.

Attracting talent

Singapore recognized early on that talent is the key to knowledge creation and value-generating R&D activities. With its small population, Singapore has had to devise a holistic talent strategy to attract and develop world-class scientists, both local and international, at all levels and in all areas of the R&D landscape.

Internationally renowned scientists who have moved to Singapore have helped to jump-start the country’s biomedical sciences efforts, providing leadership to the research institutes and mentoring young local scientists. They include Edward Holmes and Judith Swain from the University of California, San Diego; Edison Liu, Neal Copeland, and Nancy Jenkins from the National Cancer Institute; Jackie Ying from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and David Townsend, the co-inventor of the positron emission tomography/computed tomography scanner.

With a population of fewer than 4 million in the 1990s, Singapore has had to devise a holistic talent strategy to attract and develop world-class scientists, both local and international, at all levels and in all areas of the R&D landscape.

In addition, in 2008, A*STAR launched the A*STAR Investigatorship Programme to allow promising international postdocs to do research at Singapore’s research institutes. The program is modeled on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigatorship award, with the objective of nurturing the next generation of international scientific leaders by providing funding for setup costs and research staff and access to state-of-the-art equipment and facilities.

A*STAR also provides scholarships for the most capable and committed young Singaporeans to pursue undergraduate and graduate scientific training at top universities locally and abroad. Many of them can be found in top U.S. universities. According to Stanford University President John Hennessy, Singapore has the highest per-capita number of Ph.D. students at Stanford, with almost all of them on A*STAR scholarships.

Because of its own excellent higher education system, Singapore has also been able to attract many foreign students to its shores. Singapore’s autonomous universities, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), have been ranked among the top universities in the world. In the Times Higher Education Supplement’s (THES’s) World Universities Ranking 2009, the schools were ranked 30th and 73rd respectively, among the top 200 universities in the world. NUS was also ranked 14th and NTU was ranked 33rd among the top universities for engineering and information technology. THES ranked NUS 20th in the world for life sciences and biomedicine and 27th for natural sciences.

Finally, the emphasis on developing and seeking talent has led Singapore to launch programs aimed at filling specific gaps in skilled humanpower. These include the Bioprocess Internship Programme, run by A*STAR’s Bioprocessing Technology Institute, to prepare science and engineering graduates for careers in bioprocessing. These programs have produced top-notch researchers for industry, contributing to the development of a world-class R&D hub in Singapore.

Singapore has also worked hard to create a favorable business environment for businesses and investors. The 2010 Index of Economic Freedom, published by The Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation, ranked Singapore’s economy the second freest in the world. It noted that “flexibility and openness have been the foundation of Singapore’s transformation into one of the most competitive and prosperous economies in the world.” It said that Singapore has an “efficient regulatory environment [that] encourages vibrant entrepreneurial activity,” that its “commercial operations are handled with transparency and speed, and corruption is perceived to be almost nonexistent.” The index said that Singapore’s “very competitive tax regime” and “highly flexible labor market” encourage investment, which enables it to attract global companies and enhance innovation. And it noted that “foreign and domestic investors are treated equally, and Singapore’s legal system is efficient and highly protective of private property”.

Singapore’s open and supportive environment ensures that businesses are able to implement their ventures and projects speedily and efficiently. Excellent laws are in place to ensure the protection of intellectual property. Doing business and research in Singapore is made easy by the fact that English is the lingua franca. All of these factors work to enhance Singapore’s attractiveness for R&D and business.

The results thus far

Singapore’s R&D efforts, especially in biomedical sciences, have attracted international attention. In a May 2007 Boston Globe article, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, after introducing a $1 billion life sciences initiative, cited Singapore as one of the state’s major competitors, in large part because Singapore had developed coordinated strategies to attract researchers and companies. Martin Rees, president of the United Kingdom’s Royal Society, was quoted by the Press Association in December 2007 as comparing Biopolis favorably with the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation.

On a macro level, Singapore’s R&D efforts have had a significant impact and contributed much to the economy. One indicator is private/public R&D investment. In 2000, for every dollar invested by the public sector, the private sector invested SGD $1.70. By 2008, the private-sector investment had increased to SGD $2.30.

In biomedical sciences, Singapore has also fared well. Today, more than 100 global biomedical sciences companies are carrying out a variety of business operations in Singapore, including cutting-edge research and manufacturing. These companies include Abbott, Roche, Merck, Novartis, Pfizer, Schering-Plough, Wyeth, Siemens, and Becton-Dickson. The manufacturing output for biomedical sciences increased from SGD $6.3 billion in 2000 to SGD $19 billion in 2008. Biomedical sciences’ share of Singapore’s total manufacturing output also increased, from 3.9% in 2000 to 7.6% in 2008. The compound annual growth rate was 10%, a good indication of Singapore’s steady success in building up its biomedical R&D capabilities. The number of jobs more than doubled, to more than 12,000, between 2000 and 2008.

Biologics manufacturing is a prime example of how Singapore’s efforts have successfully attracted large-scale industry investments. The efforts by Bioprocessing Technology Institute (BTI) and that of other research institutes to develop the country’s bioprocessing capabilities prompted five leading biologics manufacturing companies (GlaxoSmithKline, Baxtor, Novartis, Genentech, and Lonza) to set up six commercial-scale biologics manufacturing plants in Singapore, which will potentially employ 1,300 staff and bring in more than SGD $2.5 billion in investments. Building on this success, A*STAR’s Singapore Stem Cell Consortium and BTI engaged Lonza in further discussions, culminating in the recent establishment of a Cell Therapy Manufacturing Facility in Singapore, the first one set up by Lonza outside the United States and Europe.

Between 2006 and 2009, the biomedical sciences sector engaged in double the number of industry collaborations as compared to the overall total of the preceding five years. Industry funding has increased by 26%. Between 2006 and 2009, A*STAR was involved in 66 biomedical sciences projects, including many with leading multinational companies.

In terms of biomedical sciences research output, Singapore’s performance is creditable. A*STAR’s research institutes are a case in point. Between 2002, when A*STAR was established, and 2008, its institutes published 1,927 papers in the biomedical sciences. By 2008, it had also filed 216 primary patents. These will form a pipeline for commercialization and economic activities in the years to come. More significantly, some lab work has resulted in breakthroughs with important effects on society. In 2007, a team of researchers from the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology developed a microfluidic device and chemical kit capable of detecting the influenza A (H5N1) virus using a simple swab sample from the throat. It is now being adapted to be able to detect the H1N1 virus within two hours. Some of A*STAR’s technologies have also been commercialized, resulting in spinoff companies such as VeriStem, Curiox Biosystems, and MerLion Pharmaceuticals.

The R&D push in the biomedical sciences is a long-term process. Indeed, Singapore’s investments are only beginning to show success. Singapore is now examining new ways to further bolster its capabilities. For example, it is taking steps to build its drug discovery and drug development capabilities, as well as its medical technology development. A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Clinical Sciences and the National Neuroscience Institute are collaborating with Lilly Singapore to look for new drugs that could help treat brain tumors.

Singapore will continue to use its advantages of a supportive government committed to R&D, an integrated and well-coordinated public sector, a wide spectrum of public-sector R&D capabilities, an educated and skilled workforce, and a good business and regulatory environment to become a world-class global R&D hub.

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Cite this Article

Poh, Lim Chuan. “Singapore: Betting on Biomedical Sciences.” Issues in Science and Technology 26, no. 3 (Spring 2010).

Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Spring 2010