We talk to Dr Guy Heathers, Director, SingHealth Intellectual Property Office, about his work and his thoughts about the development of the medtech industry in Singapore.
Please tell us about your organisation and what it does.
The SingHealth Intellectual Property Office or SHIP, is a tech transfer office protecting and commercialising intellectual property created by researchers at Singapore Health Services and it’s component Institutes, namely; Singapore National Eye Centre & Research Institute, National Heart Centre, National Cancer Centre, National Neuroscience Institute, National Dental Centre, Singapore General Hospital, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital. Our activities mainly involve evaluating invention disclosures, filing and prosecuting patent applications, and seeking and negotiating licence agreements to such intellectual property.
How do you seek out commercialisation partners and what do you look for in a good partner?
Most of our ‘marketing’ activities are undertaken by the inventors themselves, at local conferences or meetings. We have a pretty limited marketing budget and we are able to attend one, perhaps two local conferences a year. Unfortunately our international marketing capabilities are limited, so almost all our deals have to be local. Hopefully, this will change in the near future when we are able to access more ‘commercialisation’ funding. As for good partners, the number one thing that we look out for is experience. Frankly, this is hard to come by in the local community, although the situation is improving.
What are the more common issues that you have come across when helping your “customers”?
If we think of SHIP’s customers as our researchers, and we are providing tech transfer services to them, the most common issue has to be expectations. Many of our researchers have been very successful in obtaining significant research funding and receiving many local accolades. However, this does not mean that their research necessarily translates into something that is commercially valuable. In addition, the local research community is a long way from the epicentre of biotechnology in the US or Europe, so attempting to successfully undertake commercialisation projects is really very difficult here. The local biotech environment is growing but it is still in its infancy and biotech connections to the US and Europe are tenuous at best.
Any advice for the budding innovators in SingHealth who are trying to create the next medtech game-changer?
I would tell them to seek out and listen to as much advice from people who have actually taken a product to market or sold a business. Try and get them on board with your project in any way possible, even if it is an occasional discussion over coffee or something a bit stronger <laughs>. The environment in Singapore is not easy for budding innovators and they will need all the help that they can get.
Can you describe to us a couple of interesting projects that are available for licensing or partnering?
We have a couple of very interesting remote monitoring devices and software combinations that seek to derive incredible amounts of clinical information from ECG’s, respiratory rates and other vital signs. One uses fuzzy logic software and 10 years of stored data, the other integrates a large range of biological signals in rapid time. Another project is a fascinating way to treat a major cardiovascular disease – long QT syndrome. We have recently partnered a novel molecular target being evaluated for brain cancer with a local biotech, and also another molecular target partnered with an Australian company. A number of SERI’s ophthalmology projects are also attracting a lot of interest thanks to the efforts of the institute’s business development team. So we have had a busy year this year.
What are your thoughts about the development of Singapore’s medtech industry?
I think it is a lot more difficult than people have imagined to create a local medtech industry in the few years that we were given. It is just not that easy to create a sustainable and appropriate cohort of people, expertise and experience to successfully grow such businesses and obtain viable exits to reward investors, in such a short time frame. For the industry to make further progress, I believe it will take more time as well as a constant and consistent range of funding, including those to support development, commercialisation activities and intellectual property protection.
It is also important to remember that medtech is a risky business; people and businesses fail all the time. I am not the first person to say this, but risk-averse government funding will not create the desired medtech innovation ecosystem. There needs to be a change in people’s mindset – that it is alright to fail so long as we learn from mistakes and gain experience from them. I have made more mistakes than anyone else I have met, but fortunately I have had one or two successes too. I am still learning because there is always another way to look at developing a new medtech product or company.
What is lacking in the local medtech commercialisation scene and how do we address it?
Experienced venture funding and medtech managers are sorely missing. Many of the local companies we have dealt with are learning that it is very difficult to take an early stage medtech prototype and do all the necessary pre-clinical and clinical development, seek regulatory approval and then put the product on the market through appropriate distribution channels. This is on top of protecting their intellectual property and creating value in their business. Many of the local companies have a very different business model than medtech companies in the US and Europe, and I am not sure whether their model is viable. How do you address the lack of experience? Seek out people with experience, whether here or abroad and listen and learn from them. It is ok to make mistakes as long as you learn from them.