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Vol 19, No. 06, June 2015   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
Generating the Pipeline of Biotech Start-Ups
Ms Susan Kheng
Associate Director, [email protected]
NUS Industry Liaison Office (ILO)

In order to help move research out of the labs and into the commercial marketplace, NUS Enterprise has taken cues from a successful commercialization program in the US, known as “I-Corps” by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) – a program to take the most promising research projects in American university laboratories and turn them into startups. It will train them with a process that embraces experimentation, learning, and discovery. Over the last three years, the NSF in the US has taught over 700 teams of scientists how to commercialize their technology and how to fail less, increasing their odds for commercial success.“ 1

At the request of the NSF to develop the I-Corps curriculum, serial entrepreneur, Steve Blank adopted the LeanLaunchPad® program he created — which is a 10-week entrepreneurship course he teaches at Stanford University, using new approaches such as customer development, agile development, business model generation and pivots. So what’s an entrepreneur like Steve doing, teaching entrepreneurship to lab scientists? They had a hypothesis for a radically different approach to commercializing science, they tested it and it became a winning formula to turn promising research teams into start-ups. Out of the academic research labs, the I-Corps program resulted in a very important ‘spin-off’ - a new generation of “budding entrepreneurial scientists“.

The NUS Enterprise has undertaken to spearhead [email protected] ([email protected]), adapted by lead faculty Professor Wong Poh Kam, Director of the NUS Entrepreneurship Centre for early proprietary technologies from the university, to help researchers develop commercially viable innovations.

“We have made two adaptations to the I-Corps program — content-wise, more in-depth coverage of topics like market and competitive analysis and product-market fit analysis. Process-wise, we have developed a process to stream the teams into a set of structured follow-on programs tailored to the learning outcome of the teams, POC proposal preparation, technology translation, packaging for licensing and startup incubation,” explained Professor Wong.

The [email protected], which is funded by the Ministry of Education, had its inaugural run on campus in 2013. Both Steve Blank and Jerry Engel (Director of the I-Corp program) who were in Singapore for the launch, continue to support [email protected] as advisors. To-date, over 40 research projects have been initiated into the commercialization program. It is the largest program in Singapore to commercialize research across 3 core scientific disciplines, from and Life Sciences projects (including medical technology, biotechnology) to ICT projects to deep technology projects from Engineering (including Physical Sciences).

The program accepts inventive technologies from the lab which meet a minimum Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of 3, as shown in the diagram. ‘Commercialization’ teams are formed comprising the Principle Investigator (PI) who may be a PhD, Research Fellow, a Business or MBA graduate and a mentor who is typically a seasoned senior executive, entrepreneur. The value of the business pairing and mentorship cannot be understated as what would have taken much time to learn is now at the disposal of the researcher to accelerate business understanding, deepen industry knowledge and know the commercial and competitive landscape out there.

Insights to Finding Impactful Innovation

The ‘lean’ methodology, as the name suggests, is not a complicated concept. It focuses on doing two things really well — the customer discovery process and using the Business Model Canvas as an analytical tool. Through a scientific approach of hypotheses testing, iterations and pivoting, this method of initiation into the marketplace simulates for the researcher an experimental methodology which they can easily relate to.

The teams spend 10 weeks out of the lab, doing weekly interviews and meetings with potential customers and users, channel partners to test and validate their assumptions and hypotheses in their business model. “It pushes the teams to go beyond their comfort zones, go out into the real world to search for the customers who need their solution, and will pay for it,” says Dr Ting Dor Ngi, [email protected]’s teaching faculty for Life Sciences.

The push to ‘get out of the building’ is well understood by Prof Hong Ming Hui, Principal Investigator of the “Optical Nanoscopes” LLP team, who is developing a unique nanoscope for high resolution microscopy that could be applied for cancer research. He explained, “The LLP program is the first step in formulating a comprehensive strategy to transit technologies into the right marketplace. By pushing our researchers to talk to potential customers, the programenables us to understand better the customers’ needs, think more from customers’ perspective and better shape the value proposition of our technology. Our commercialization process will become much easier.”

The “get out of the building” approach is really important in gaining a deeper understanding of the complexities of how things really work in the industry. In terms of my research, I have adopted a more open approach of talking to as many practitioners as possible and as early as possible to ensure that my research is useful and implementable.
Engineering PI
Dr Goh Yang Miang, [email protected] 2015

After completing the business model for his new project, Prof Huang De Jian, NUS professor in Food Science research concluded, “We have learnt new skills on how to put all the pieces of the puzzle together to discover a roadmap to commercialize our technology that, we assumed, must have buyers without taking into consideration many other business factors.” Prof Huang has started up his own company, Kosmode Biotechnology Company to commercialize his technology that produces high concentration cranberry extracts.

Finding new market insights, having a better understanding customer pains and problems out there and perhaps even uncovering unmet market needs, will only gear up the research for greater impact in the market place.

For one researcher in the SureLipids LLP team, Dr Anne Bendt, Senior Research Fellow at the Life Sciences Institute, Center for Life Sciences, through the findings from over 200 interviews conducted, discovered that the cosmetics industry would be a potential market for their lipid analysis technology. The team has recently submitted a Proof of Concept (POC) application for National Research Fund (NRF) funding to continue the development of a unique enrichment kit for specific lipids that will enable research labs to conduct further analysis for disease identification. One such lipid is sphingosine-1-phosphate (S1P), a low abundant (micromolar) signaling molecule which is currently emerging as a valid biomarker for life-threatening illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, cardiovascular disease and cancer as well as inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and lupus.

By plugging the technology into the market space sooner rather than later, it is in effect, compressing research years upfront to learn quickly and “fail less”. The greatest gain for the individuals coming out of the 10-week ‘incubation’ is in embracing the real challenges out there in the market place and taking all that information to make good an idea. With valuable market insights and concrete market data gathered, they would aspire with a higher level of confidence to realize their technology’s full potential value and impact to the world.

After the completion of 10 weeks, as the [email protected] teams continue to apply the principles of agile engineering with constant market engagement throughout the development of their technologies, these teams are well underway towards bringing their technology readiness levels up and bridging the gap to a Proof-of-Concept or Proof-of-Value or successful licensing or a spinoff company.

With only 3 runs completed, the [email protected] will continue to expand and contribute to the pipeline for the future of biotech start-ups in Singapore, by reaching out to more researchers and enabling them to take the first baby step in narrowing the gap between lab and the market space

About the Author

Ms Susan Kheng, Associate Director, for the [email protected] program in NUS Industry Liaison Office (ILO). ILO helps to foster technology commercialization, industry engagement and partnerships, as well as being responsible for managing NUS intellectual property. ILO works closely with NUS researchers to help them in the commercialization process, from providing information on patents, agreements to funding and entrepreneur support. https://enterprise.nus.edu.sg/commercialise

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