PWG Laboratories is one of the earliest Singapore-based provider of preclinical research services. Michael Kim, CEO PWG, shares his startup experience and where he sees opportunities in the near future.
PWG started in 2005 as a joint venture between a US firm and its Singapore partner. Our US parent company has been in biomedical sciences research field since the mid 1980s and serves companies, government institutions and the academia. The JV gave us the opportunity to grow our business in this part of the world, in Asia. Our specialty is to provide specific pathogen-free (SPF) mini-pigs to researchers for conducting in-vivo studies, which were not readily available to the local research community at that time.
We built one of the first domesticated animal research facility in Singapore and had to overcome a number of “pioneering” challenges because the concept was new. Setting up the business and building our facility required us to obtain approvals from many different regulatory agencies. There was no single point of contact that we could work with to apply for the various regulatory approvals.
Also, the requirements were sometimes inconsistent. We had to work very hard to fully understand and analyze the requirements, which took longer than we initially expected.
You mentioned growing your business in Asia, how did you go about doing this?
We realised early that the market in Singapore was small and had already set our sights on other markets in the region. However, Singapore was a good starting point and so we first targeted the scientific and bio-engineering communities here. We provided large laboratory animals and offered contract research services which were in demand because of the growing research activities in local biomedical sciences industry.
Singapore is generally seen as a place where things work and where people are ethical, honest and trustworthy. Customers who visited us were also impressed with the clean and safe environment. This positive perception seems to appeal to our customers in the global CRO market. Therefore, our mere presence here has actually helped us attract customers from the region and elsewhere. Furthermore, when we first started, there were not many “large animal” research organisations in the region that were GLP (Good Laboratory Practice) compliant. Therefore, our GLP facilities and our unique mini-pig models gave us an edge. Eventually, we started to pitch our GLP services to customers in the Asian and US markets, including global pharmaceutical and medical device companies.
We were quite successful penetrating the Japanese market, which is home to numerous big pharmaceutical and medical device companies. There, we formed a partnership with Sekisui Medical (SMD). SMD belonged to the Sekisui Group, which is one of the largest conglomerates in Japan. SMD is also the 2nd biggest CRO in Japan. For the last few years, this partnership has contributed significantly to our business and I believe there is great potential for further growth.
I strongly believe that a CRO is judged by its scientific quality, technical competency and track record. And so, we continually work to improve ourselves in these areas. PWG has served many pharmaceutical and medical device companies, supporting them in their preclinical and translational research activities. Helping these clients has allowed us to build up a strong track record and they often provide good references. We also pro-actively invest in our internal R&D programs. For instance, we develop new disease models and transgenic animals as well as new technologies for toxicological evaluations. I believe that these efforts will help us stay at the cutting edge of science and ensure that we are always ready and capable to support our customers.
Singapore’s business costs have gone up over the years, is it now a less attractive location?
In general business costs have gone up in other countries in the region too. So this is a problem that is not unique to Singapore. Compared to other locations in Asia, Singapore remains attractive to us because of other factors beyond costs. For example, the safe environment, English being the working language, business transparency, strong rule of law, just to name a few. In the CRO business, our ability to deliver high quality work remains paramount and Singapore is still the best place to do so. I believe our customers also see these same qualities in Singapore-based service providers like ours.
That said, we are adapting. We have committed resources and efforts to improve the efficiency of our operations and to better manage manpower and business costs. For instance, we have outsourced non-scientific functions like administration and accounting, as well as cross-trained our staff so that they can perform more functions. We also implemented an ERP system and an energy saving program. All these measures have resulted in significant cost-savings and made us more productive over the years. I personally believe that we can always turn a challenge into an opportunity or strength.
What changes do you think will help the local medtech industry grow?
Speaking very generally and from my own experience, I think that regulatory or government administrative procedures should be trimmed, simplified and made more customer-friendly. I hope that the review and turn-around time of regulatory agencies can also be shortened. Furthermore, it will be helpful if regulations can be made more flexible to suit the nature of individual businesses.
I think it is also important for Singapore to nurture and support the development of a strong supporting industry for the medtech sector. Organisations like ours are part of the supporting infrastructure that enables impactful research activities and innovation to take place in the broader biomedical sciences industry. It will be useful if we are also able to tap on government grant schemes to support the research activities of our Singapore-based customers and ultimately helping them bring more ‘home-grown’ technologies to the market.
Due to the global economic crisis and its knock-on effects, the last 5 years have seen pharmaceutical companies focusing mostly on clinical trials because of their ‘safer’ return on investment. As a result, many CROs in non-clinical research fields have suffered. However, this is slowly changing as the global economy recovers, especially, in USA. More investors are now funding early stage discovery projects, which involve conducting non-clinical research. This turn-around represents a great opportunity for CROs like ours. Singapore is also gradually gaining a strong reputation as a large animal clinical trial hub for biopharmaceuticals. We are tapping on this development and actively moving forward to showcase our full capabilities in non-human primate research and to offer our comprehensive suite of non-clinical research services to clients in Singapore and beyond.