S'pore biotech sector churns on

Despite challenging 2009, Singapore's biotech industry continues to receive attention from foreign players and is gearing up for greater development.
Written by Vivian Yeo, Contributor

SINGAPORE--The country's biotechnology industry, which made progress in 2009 despite a recession-beset year, is expected to continue making strides in 2010, according to government officials.

Two months into the new decade, local industrial developer and landlord JTC announced it will spend up to S$100 million (US$70.8 million) to expand the Biopolis project by 40,000sqm. The biomedical research and development (R&D) hub was opened in 2004.

The government entity also revealed plans to establish a new medical technology cluster in the western part of the island-state, which will encompass warehouses, laboratories, sterilization facilities, equipment manufacturers and other supporting industry players.

These expansion efforts will be rolled out in phases spanning three years until 2013.

Beh Kian-Teik, director of biomedical sciences at the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that the country "continued to draw a steady stream" of R&D announcements in 2009, in spite of the challenges that confronted the global pharmaceutical and biotech sector. Biotech, which is sometimes referred to as the life sciences industry, is one of the EDB's focus verticals.

Beh said one such R&D initiative is S*BIO, a local biotech company poised to receive over US$600 million through licensing agreements with Onyx Pharmaceuticals and Tragara Pharmaceuticals.

"Today, over 50 small and midsize global biotech and medical technology (medtech) companies carry out activities ranging from R&D to manufacturing, and even [locating their] headquarters in Singapore to fully leverage the city-state's strategic location to expand their outreach into Asia," he noted.

Biologics, in particular, has grown significantly, he said. The industry segment has attracted leading companies such as Baxter, GlaxoSmithKline and Lonza, which have collectively invested US$2 billion in six major projects.

"Within the past five years, Singapore has extended from its strong track record in chemical-based active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) manufacturing and made great strides in complex biologics manufacturing despite starting from scratch," Beh noted.

"Most recently in 2009, [Swiss company] Roche opened its first US$500 million biologics facilities in Asia, while Baxter commenced construction of its first biopharmaceutical plant in Asia that will manufacture Advate," he added. Advate is used on patients who have hemophilia, a blood disorder.

Beh highlighted that over the next few years, the biologics sector will employ more than 1,000 skilled employees trained in the companies' global and local facilities.

Lim Tit Meng, assistant professor at the National University of Singapore, noted in an e-mail that "commendable progress" has been made in the pharmaceutical domain. Drug development and production, along with aquaculture and agriculture, are the more advanced biotech areas, he added.

Emerging biotech fields, said Lim who is also chief executive of the Science Centre Singapore, lie in the areas of water treatment, waste processing, green energy and bioengineering innovation.

A spokesperson from A*Star (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) reported that between 2006 and 2008, scientists in its affiliated biomedical research institutes and units generated 1,927 papers in international peer-reviewed journals and 216 priority patent applications. In that same period, A*Star was engaged in 66 industry projects including research collaborations with France's Humalys and Switzerland's Cytos Biotechnology to develop human monoclonal antibodies against infectious diseases.

"Growth in the last three years has been significant compared with the earlier five-year period (from 2001 to 2005), during which only 1,010 papers were published, 154 patent applications filed and 32 projects carried out with the industry," she said, adding that A*Star currently employs close to 1,000 biomedical researchers from over 50 countries.

According to the spokesperson, Singapore's advancements in biotech are playing an increasingly important role in manufacturing. "The biomedical manufacturing industry was responsible for 7.6 percent of the country's total manufacturing output in 2008, almost double the 3.9 percent [recorded] in 2000--[representing] a compound annual growth rate of 10 percent."

She attributed these achievements to the country's focus on developing human capital, intellectual capital and industrial capital.

Going forward, the challenge remains for Singapore to "capitalize on the good start" it has made in research and clinical trials, and to sustain growth, the A*Star spokesperson noted. The country will also need to stay ahead of the competition, in particular, from China and India, she said.

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