Mr Johnson Chen
Founder and Managing Director Clearbridge BioMedics.
ClearCell FX System
It is well known that the healthcare start-up journey is particularly difficult and challenging. This is because biotech entrepreneurs face tougher challenges such as long product development cycles, stringent regulatory hurdles, time-consuming clinical trials, need for multidisciplinary R&D teams and significant capital requirements. For any medtech company, establishing the right partnership is not only useful but vital to achieve success.
Established in 2010, Clearbridge BioMedics has formed numerous strategic partnerships with reputable organisations around the world. This has allowed the company to progress quicker in various different areas, including obtaining improvements in the technology, corporate development, product development and R&D. How were we able to initiate and grow these partnerships? Let me explain further.
Starting with the Right Technology Partner
As with many (medical technology) medtech start-ups, Clearbridge BioMedics started by first identifying the core technology. I re-connected with a friend from my university days, Professor Lim Chwee Teck, from the NUS Department of Biomedical Engineering and Department of Mechanical Engineering. Prof Lim and his team had invented a microfluidic biochip that was able to detect, isolate and capture wholly-intact circulating tumour cells (CTCs) from a patient’s blood sample. At that time, there were not many CTC researchers and the field was still nascent. I saw the strong commercial potential of the technology, in particular due to the increasing incidence of cancer globally and the emergence of targeted therapies. As it turns out,National University of Singapore (NUS) had the added advantage of being a world class research institution, with deep talents, strong research links, and a strong entrepreneurship programme.
So we decided to set up Clearbridge BioMedics with the specific aim to translate and commercialize this university invention into the ClearCell® FX system, a next-generation, real-time non-invasive device that can potentially offer “liquid biopsies” for cancer screening, diagnosis, personalized therapy management and treatment monitoring. Our strong working relationship with NUS was critical in the ensuring Clearbridge BioMedics had a good partnership. The NUS Industry Liaison Office provided technology transfer support, and with their assistance, we licensed and spun-off the technology into Clearbridge BioMedics. Prof Lim joined Clearbridge BioMedics as a co-founder and advisor, bringing in the right academic contacts and strong technical support. During the early days, the product was constantly evolving, so having the right technical backing was critical, especially when it comes to technology refinements and improvements. Academic partnerships are also important as it allows a company to improve and establish the company’s credibility, as the academic partners are aligned in publishing papers in academic journals.
Growing the Company with Corporate Partners
Clearbridge BioMedics’ objective is for its ClearCell® FX system to become the platform of choice to help researchers and clinicians make better decisions in developing effective treatments for cancer. In order to meet this objective, Clearbridge BioMedics needed to form partnerships and bring in suitable investors, advisors and senior management. We were fortunate to have made several partnerships with individuals and corporations who have funded us and provided strategic guidance and business advice. As an example, Tim Draper, from Draper Fisher Jurvetson, invested personally into Clearbridge Accelerator, the parent accelerator company, and joined the Clearbridge Accelerator’s advisory board. This provided the group companies, such as Clearbridge BioMedics, with a nice start and also helped open access to international markets. As Clearbridge BioMedics grew, we also benefited from investors including Vertex Venture Holdings, BioVeda Capital, SPRING Seeds Capital, Clearbridge BSA, Trauwin Group and Mr Lu Yoh Chie (being the founder of Biosensors International), with the latter joining us as Chairman of Clearbridge BioMedics’ Board of Directors. Our investors brought with them their expertise and specialist skills in developing markets.
Having the right investors is important. Not all investors will be aligned to your company’s mission or be able to understand the particular risks that a young medtech company will face, and even more so as the risks involved in biomedical start-ups are extremely high, and have longer investment horizons. Experienced investors who understand your product, the target market and what you wish to achieve will be invaluable in the start-up journey. Good investors can potentially offer advice, make useful linkages and add true value to the company, in addition to providing funds.
For any partnership to be formed, networking is key and this typically takes time. It usually boils down to the human element, so developing effective and lasting relationships is critical. For investors, one of the very important factors is to put in place a good team behind the company. If a company has a good technology, but is run by a bad management team, it is not likely to succeed. However, a company that is run by a strong management team can succeed, even if it starts off with a poor technology, as the team will figure out how to acquire or license a better technology in order to deliver the product or service. As such, having the right team in place is critical for any early venture to succeed.
Developing the Product
The biotech/ medtech product cycle is very challenging, which is why finding the right R&D and manufacturing partners is also important. Clearbridge BioMedics established partnerships with key industry players in order to develop the product and get it to market. One of our first collaborations was with our Singapore manufacturer, Hybrionic Pte Ltd, a precision manufacturing engineering firm, who helped us with the manufacture of our microfluidic biochips to strict quality standards in their clean rooms. Clearbridge BioMedics also partnered with Cambridge Consultants, who helped in the development work of the ClearCell® FX system under set development and documentation standards. As an experienced technology design and development firm, Cambridge Consultants designed the system to be a robust platform, suitable for both research and clinical diagnostic applications. We later also partnered many other manufacturers and component suppliers in order to bring our ClearCell® FX system to market. These are all critical as medtech products need to be manufactured under required quality standards and traceability.
As Clearbridge BioMedics needed to bring our product into the clinic, it was crucial that we worked with the right clinical partners. Since the early days of our company, we have been actively seeking research collaborations with institutions locally and abroad. One example is with National Cancer Center Japan. Data from this study has been presented at international symposiums. The company also has various other collaborations in the US, UK and Europe. In 2014, we collaborated with the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) and Pathology Department of Singapore General Hospital (SGH) to set up a new Circulating Tumour Cell Centre of Research Excellence (CTC CoRE). This aims to better understand the genetic make-up of a patient’s cancer cells, which can evolve over time, and by using CTCs, clinicians hope to better manage and detect changes in cancer resistances. It also aims to provide oncologists with information, to help them better diagnose, treat and manage cancers.
Establishing collaborations with such renowned organizations is not easy and have to be painstakingly built and nurtured over time. As Singapore is small with a limited market, we knew from the onset that we had to actively seek partnerships by venturing overseas, and this global mindset has been built and planned into our business development strategy. Clearbridge BioMedics attended various international conferences, trade shows and leveraged on personal referrals to build up our global connections.
The complexity of the biotech and medtech industry means that no company can achieve success on its own. This is also evident even for large companies in the biotech and medtech sectors, who routinely collaborate and partner together. In order to establish a good working relationship with partners, it is often useful to look at the scenario from the each other’s perspective. Each organization will have their own set of values, objectives, rules and challenges, so taking the time to understand the background of the other party will more often than not help to ensure smoother relations all round.
About the Author
Mr Johnson Chen is the Founder and Managing Director Clearbridge BioMedics. Clearbridge BioMedics specializes in novel platforms with applications in oncology research and diagnostics. It is a Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) / National University of Singapore (NUS) spinoff company that is committed to developing medical devices, which will impact the world and revolutionize cancer diagnostics and patient care, by leveraging on ground-breaking technology from research partners. Headquartered in Singapore, Clearbridge BioMedics currently has customers spanning Asia, Europe and North America. www.clearbridgebiomedics.com