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March 13, 2019 / 5:08 AM / a month ago

Singapore: Springboard to Asia, enabling tech startups to grow

For the millions of people around the world who suffer from renal diseases, dialysis is necessary, but it can be a hugely disruptive feature of their daily lives. During dialysis, patients are typically hooked up to bulky machines and have to stay stationary for hours during their treatments.

AWAK, a Singapore-based startup, has developed a new system that could revolutionise dialysis, and offer patients hope for a far greater quality of life.

“We saw that there was a clear need to drastically improve the way in which millions of patients worldwide are treated for End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD). When it comes to innovation, the dialysis industry has been stagnant over the past few decades as compared to the rest of the healthcare industry,” says Suresh Venkataraya, the company’s chief executive officer. “We developed the AWAK PD device with a focus to eliminate many of these issues and provide a therapy that is convenient and can enhance patients’ quality of life.”

AWAK’s PD is a world-first wearable portable dialysis device. Weighing less than 2.5kg and requiring less than 2L of fluid, it allows patients to move around and continue with their daily activities while undergoing dialysis. “Dialysis patients will no longer have to plan their schedule around dialysis session as they can carry it with them while performing activities of daily living,” Venkataraya says.

The device will enter its pivotal trials later this year, and has already received a “Breakthrough Device” definition from the US Food and Drug Administration, paving the way for its commercialisation in the US.AWAK is one of the growing number of medical technology, or “med-tech” companies that is using Singapore as a springboard to develop and commercialise innovations that could have a profound impact on human health.

Biolidics, another Singapore-based medtech startup which spun out of the National University of Singapore in 2009, is developing new methods for the early diagnosis of cancer. A timely diagnosis significantly improves a patient’s likelihood of receiving successful treatment. Biolidics innovative liquid biopsies—the analysis of cancer cells that circulate in a sufferer’s bloodstream—provides new ways to screen for and monitor cancers, allowing for more reactive and more personalised treatment, according to Ivan Lew, the company’s CEO.

Lew says, “Biolidics is a true-blue Singapore medical technology story”, and during its starting up phase, has received encouraging support from the government including a) proof-of-concept grant from Enterprise Singapore, an economic government agency that champions enterprise and industry development to grow stronger Singapore companies. That initial support has been vital in helping Biolidics to develop its technologies and tap into new markets.

“Time to market is vital in the medtech industry, as technologies are constantly evolving and developing,” Lew says. “As such, we work with various agencies in Singapore to navigate past [our] challenges. Enterprise Singapore has been one key partner that we work closely with to create awareness and expand our outreach to tap into new markets and opportunities beyond Singapore.”

The Singapore government has identified medical technology as one of its priority areas, recognising that the sector has high growth potential, and that the country has a comparative advantage to focus on growing this sector. 

The international consultancy firm McKinsey has forecast that the global medtech market will grow to US$537 billion by 2020, with Asia-Pacific poised to be the second-largest market behind the USA. 

Singapore has invested heavily in the health and biomedical sciences sector over the last two decades, and the country already houses regional headquarters for the 10 largest medical technology companies, and many of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

“Singapore is well-positioned to take advantage of this global trend,” says Edwin Chow, Assistant Chief Executive, Innovation & Enterprise of  Enterprise Singapore. “As a regional medical hub, Singapore has an excellent integrated healthcare system with quality researchers and clinicians. We have a robust system for clinical research within hospitals, along with a strong and supportive [intellectual property] infrastructure.”

There is also, Chow says, a wider startup boom taking place in Singapore, with more than 100 incubators and accelerators, and more than 150 venture capital investors actively seeking opportunities across medtech, financial technology, advanced manufacturing, foodtech and other sectors. This broader ecosystem allows for the interplay of different actors and sectors, driving even greater innovation and creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors.

“Singapore is continuously evolving with the changing global environment. At the national level, we have set our sights on deepening the growth of our innovation ecosystem with the aim of turning Singapore into an economy led by innovation,” Chow says. “It is vital that we do not merely build up our competencies in silos, but that we bring them together to form an active knowledge economy that will enable ecosystem players to bring their ideas quickly from seed to fruit.”

That ecosystem is growing, and attracting new players.

When Trendlines Medical, an Israel-based incubator for innovative medical technologies, started to look for an Asian home, Singapore was a natural place to start, according to Todd Dollinger, the company’s chairman and CEO.

Trendlines works with researchers and entrepreneurs to commercialise innovations in medical care. The company opened its Singapore incubator in February 2017, and made its first investment that September, subsequently building partnerships with local institutions, including Enterprise Singapore and the National Healthcare Group. It now has a portfolio of six companies, including Ayzer Sense, a smart, automated mattress that reduces the formation of pressure ulcers, and Medulla Pro, an ultrasound-guided imaging system for lumbar punctures.

The city-state has a reputation for high-quality medical care, as well as the academic and research institutions that underpin innovation, Dollinger says. “You have this density of expertise. You have people who have the skills and the interest in identifying problems to improve things.”Singapore’s proximity to fast-growing markets around the region is an added attraction, he says. Economic growth is driving enormous investments into medical care for a new, emerging middle class across China and Southeast Asia, and creating opportunities for entrepreneurs who can bring solutions that are tailored to these markets. 

“We like Asia. We’ve been involved in Asia for a long time. And so when we began looking for an Asian home, we found ourselves focusing on Singapore as a springboard,” Dollinger says. “For development, for invention, for access to the whole of Asia, we think that Singapore is really the place to be.”

See more from this series

Switch On To SingaporeWhere the world’s bright ideas take root
Singapore to Silicon ValleyStartups are bridging ties between the two cities
The Eureka SeekersMeet the startup innovators venturing onto the global stage
Sustainable SolutionsA conducive test bed for promising solutions

The Reuters editorial and news staff had no role in the production of this content. It was created by Reuters Plus, part of the commercial advertising group. To work with Reuters Plus, contact us here.

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