We talk to Melvin Loh and Rachel Hong, Director and Co-Director respectively of the Medical Engineering Research & Commercialization Initiative (MERCI) at the National University of Singapore about tech commercialisation in the academia setting.
MERCI was set up in 2009 to drive and support the development and commercialisation of medical device technologies arising from the work of doctors and clinicians from our medical school. We have a multi-disciplinary team to help our partners in the key areas of device development, from early device conceptualisation all the way to technology licensing and startup-incubation. We also have a dedicated laboratory, which was opened in 2013, to support our development activities. The lab houses state-of-the-art development tools such as 3D prototyping machines which can handle medical grade materials. Basically, we gather the various pieces of the development and commercialisation puzzle together, and work closely with our partners to bring their medical innovations to the market.
How do you seek out good partners and projects?
It is mostly through word of mouth. We tend to attract professors who are already sitting on the fence with a raw technology or idea, and wondering whether and how to proceed. Once they know that they do not have to go at it alone, they will usually make the jump. When they come to us, we will evaluate their projects based on a set of strict criteria and select those projects that are impactful and that we feel have a good chance to succeed.
We are seeing more professors who are enthusiastic and becoming involved in technology commercialisation and startup companies. This is because the university and the hospital are changing. There is greater awareness and recognition in these institutions that research and commercialisation are important and that they have to go hand-in-hand. For instance, the university is trying to broaden the way it evaluates its academic staff by looking beyond the tradition KPIs, such as the number of papers published and research grants secured. It is considering other factors like the professors’ contribution to licensed technologies or startup companies. Although this is still work in progress, it does spur people on. And that is a good thing.
What are your thoughts about the development of Singapore’s medtech industry?
One observation is that Singapore tend to focus on supporting the development of more innovative and complicated medical devices, which are often the riskier, class 3 devices. The rationale is that the development, production and sale of these devices create greater value for the industry as a whole. While there is nothing wrong with this line of thought, I would suggest that we remain open to opportunities involving less ‘sophisticated’ medtech products. One reason is that some of these products may be ‘low value’ but can potentially generate attractive returns due to high volume sales.
There are also lessons that we can learn from our neighbours like China. Ten years ago, they were making mostly copycat me-too products. But this has allowed the Chinese companies to cut their teeth on product development and commercialisation. They set up infrastructure and supply chains, and more importantly built up strong capabilities within the industry. The early experiences enabled the Chinese medtech industry to grow a pool of technical and business personnel that is competent and familiar with new product development. Today, they are becoming more innovative and some even compete globally with established MNCs. We are not just talking about simple devices and instruments but also complicated class 3 devices like drug-eluting stents.
I think in the life sciences industry, whether we are developing medical devices or discovering new drugs, we have to plan for the long term, constantly adjust to the market conditions and patiently stay committed to our goals. Unlike many other industries, we have to develop strategies and plan with a very long time horizon in mind. That is a challenge for industry players and policy makers alike.
Experienced personnel is at the top of my list. For example, it is still difficult to find engineers who are familiar or have experience with medical device development. There are plenty who have worked in the manufacturing setting but those who have worked in product development laboratories are relatively rare. For our local industry to succeed in new device development and commercialisation, we have to address this shortage. If not, our local innovators will be forced to “outsource” product development to firms in other countries, something which I have already seen happened at a few of our local medtech startups.
What does our local medtech startup scene has in its favour?
This question reminds me of the time when I met a group of Australian medtech researchers. I described to them some of the government programmes that we have for supporting the local medtech industry and they were quite envious. I think that the strong government support that we have here is a major advantage. This support comes in various forms and is dispensed through a variety of channels including the stat boards, universities, research institutes, technology incubators and even industry associations. Beyond the research grants and financial incentives, our startups and SMEs can receive mentorships, access business clinics, and get other non-financial support. This has allowed us to create a more conducive environment for individuals, including medtech researchers in the university, to go out and set up their own medtech startup companies.
That said, I think we can still do better, especially when it comes to encouraging private investors to invest in our local startups. For instance, although we have a sizeable pool of angel investors, only a handful will look at investments in the medtech industry. Perhaps they are unfamiliar with the industry or they are put off by the long investment horizon. It gets even more difficult as we move downstream to the later stage investors. To create a sustainable medtech startup scene in the long run, I believe we must balance government support and private investments. I also believe that we will get there eventually as more and more success stories emerge from the industry. And we certainly hope to be able to contribute to those success stories.