Source: Business Times

FOR six months now, a first-of-its-kind “open innovation lab” and tech incubator in Singapore has been quietly in play, wooing startups in the medtech and biotech sectors.

ASTART Central was opened in March by ETPL, the commercialisation arm of government science and research agency AStar. The 980 sq metre facility will officially be launched on Sept 21 as part of the inaugural Singapore Week of Innovation & TeCHnology (Switch).

Sidney Yee, executive vice-president of AStar’s incubation and startup management division, said that ASTART Central has since its March opening been focused on building a critical mass. It seeks to kickstart the growth of the nascent medtech and biotech sectors here, and the big goal is to foster a robust, sophisticated medtech and biotech community.

In a recent interview with The Business Times, Dr Yee said that for now, the government will take the lead in encouraging startup activity in these two sectors. The private sector is unlikely to jump in, given the high costs and uncertainties involved.

She said: “The investment (into the medtech and biotech sectors) is not trivial. The private sector is not going to invest and ‘see how’. Government agencies are thinking the same thing – they don’t want a white elephant. But if we don’t do this, (growth in the two sectors) will never happen.”

Now is a good time, she added, as there is a pipeline of A*Star spin-offs and affiliated startups looking to create the next big thing in medtech and biotech. These ventures would need conducive infrastructure, such as a design-tinkering space and wet lab, in addition to mentorship, funding, and access to business networks.

Dr Yee said that A*START Central provides all of these, and it is hoping to attract a global network of talent, companies, and investors who can “value add” and “take risks not just for strategic but commercial reasons”.

According to Dr Yee, who is also chief of A*Star’s diagnostic development hub, Chinese investors are increasingly drawn to the Republic’s deep science ecosystem because of its strong intellectual property (IP) protection regime. She said: “We hope that a network of value-adding investors … can inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs.”

A*START Central, sited in Block 79 at the JTC LaunchPad @ one-north, can incubate up to 25 startups, in which it will take no equity, only membership fees. The 10 on board now comprise medtech, biotech and Internet startups. Dr Yee said the mix can inspire “managed serendipity”. This is because when different technologies evolve, they tend to overlap.

Privi Medical, a homegrown company that makes new medical devices that cater to unmet needs, said being at A*START Central allows it to meet with “biotech and medtech people” every day and a new investor every week. Co-founder Prusothman Raja said this means there is always an exchange of ideas and knowledge.

The startup’s other co-founder, Rena Dharmawan, added that Privi has benefited from ETPL’s guidance, notably in regulatory and IP matters, as well as easy access to A*START Central’s engineering and wet labs, which her team uses on a daily basis.

The co-founders met during the 2014 Singapore-Stanford Biodesign Fellowship Office programme, a partnership between A*Star, EDB (the Economic Development Board of Singapore) and Stanford University. Privi’s first product, a device that can be used by haemorrhoids patients at home to stop the bleeding, will launch by early-2018.

Kooki, an artificial intelligence (AI) firm that wants to create an “AI assistant” for every knowledge worker, said that ETPL has been integral in helping the startup license an A*Star tech (in media sensing and semantics) for its product. Co-founder Ang Wee Tiong added that Kooki is working on securing its own IP, with help from ETPL.

A spin-off of A*Star’s Institute for Infocomm Research, Kooki has developed a software to help professionals in their work, by intelligently accumulating and analysing relevant data from the Internet, and recommending strategic business actions. Ang Tee Wee, the other co-founder of Kooki, said being in a medtech-focused space helps the business, as one of its target verticals is healthcare.

Dr Yee noted that ASTART Central’s offerings could “shortcut” the entrepreneurial process. She said: “Our success KPI is a waiting list (of startups wanting to be at ASTART Central). We hope to have one next year.”

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