The Singapore Eye Research Institute (SERI) is one of Singapore’s leading research organisations. Danny Belkin, Director of Technology Development and Commercialisation, shares his observations about the tech commercialisation space in Singapore and where it can be improved.
Tell us a bit about yourself and the work you do at SERI.
I came to Singapore two and a half years ago to establish the technology development and commercialisation office at SERI. Prior to this, I worked in Europe for Abbott Labs; and before that I studied for an MBA. I had earlier worked in a stem cell therapy startup company in Israel for several years, right after I completed my PhD in Immunology at Cambridge.
The SERI technology development and commercialisation office was set up to proactively commercialise our research outcomes and to engage industrial partners. SERI scientists are carrying out world-class research and have produced results that have received widespread international recognition. In addition to generating an impressive publication track record and a growing reputation, the outcomes of SERI’s research efforts include multiple commercially promising technologies which can be brought to patients either via licensing to existing companies or via newly created spin-offs. These technologies are in a diverse range of domains, including therapeutics, devices, diagnostics and software.
What are the most challenging aspects of your job and how do you cope?
I feel that the practice of commercialising impactful medical technology innovations in the public sector via startup companies is still not widely accepted or rooted here. I suspect this may partly be due to the low risk tolerance of the local environment. This results in multiple challenges in our activities, from overly long processes caused by an aversion to risk, to strategic alignment gaps within the different levels of the healthcare system.
What we do to cope is to carry on a continuous dialogue with the higher echelons in the hospital and with relevant parties throughout Singapore which are very supportive of these activities. We also leverage on the successes we that we have achieved so far to get our message across. We also continue to work with the system as it evolves to support us, especially as we begin to meet the goals that we set out to achieve.
What are some of the interesting/promising projects that you have come across?
Two startup companies were established over the past year based on technologies developed by SERI with its partners, NTU and A*Star. They have strong potential to develop important game-changing therapies in their respective domains. You can find out more about them at www.peregrineophthalmic.com and www.sinsalabs.com.
Also, SERI together with the NUS School of Computing has developed a suite of retinal image analysis software that can be used for widespread patient screening, to diagnose a variety of ophthalmic diseases. This innovation brings clear benefits not only to patients but to physicians and the healthcare system as a whole. You can read more on this technology and its potential impact at https://www.seri.com.sg/research-groups/ocular-imaging/.
Finally, last year we launched the SNEC incubator. It currently hosts three commercially very attractive technology projects that we think have the potential to become promising startup companies. We are hopeful that in the coming few years we will be able to carry on our efforts to support the creation of a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem in the life sciences domain in Singapore by spinning off such companies.
Describe the types of researchers that are a joy to work with, describe those that are not.
From my experience, I enjoy working with researchers and clinicians who are keen to develop and commercialise their technologies but who are also aware of their own limitations. They accept that there are limits to their knowledge in areas such as product/drug development, IP and licensing. They appreciate that we bring unique and important value to the process, and know that we all have to work as a team to bring the technology to the market.
On the other hand, there are those who think that they know everything and do not need any support from others, or they do not see the value that we bring to the table. These tend to be soloists. But in any organisation, there are team players and there are soloists, and naturally the former are a lot more enjoyable to work with.
In your opinion, what are the key ingredients to finding and securing successful deals?
To find good deals, it is all about being proactive, proactive, and proactive! Do not wait for the licensee to come to you, go seek them out physically and electronically. Always grow and nurture your network, as this will help you find the right partners – in our case as we are in a niche area, it is relatively easy.
To secure good deals, it is important to keep the big picture in view. Always remember what you really want to achieve in a negotiation and not let the details get in the way or bog you down. Furthermore, we have to be flexible and to be aware, be mindful and be able to communicate the needs and constraints of all parties involved. Communication is key.
What is still lacking in the local tech commercialisation space and how do we address it?
When we look at the established medical innovation centres in the US, EU and Israel, I think we still have some way to go. However, do keep in mind that the medical sectors in these places have been developing for decades and Singapore is a young upstart in comparison. Singapore still lacks a critical mass of experienced manpower and I am referring to clinicians, scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists that have gone through the relatively long process of developing and commercialising medical technologies, including both successes and failures! We also lack sufficient risk-taking private investors, such as VCs.
On the bright side, it is clear to me that the technology being developed here is world class, as are the researchers. Therefore, I think it is only a matter of achieving a number of successes to create a positive feedback loop that will drive up interest in technology development by researchers and funding for these from private and public sources. We will get there, but it will take time.