The biomedical sciences field in Singapore has recently encountered a number of obstacles, with barriers hindering new startups from incorporating and existing companies facing liquidity issues. The closure of Tessa Therapeutics after failing to secure additional funding from investors serves as a stark reminder of the challenges faced by biotech companies in the city-state.
Amidst this concerning landscape, AUM Biosciences — a biopharmaceutical company that has developed a portfolio of precision oncology therapeutics to combat cancer resistance — stands poised to thrive and make significant contributions in the field.
As the biotech industry grapples with uncertainties, KrASIA had the opportunity to speak with Vishal Doshi, CEO of AUM Biosciences, to gain insights into the current situation and discover valuable advice for startups aiming to weather these tough times.
The following interview has been edited and consolidated for brevity and clarity.
KrASIA (Kr): What are some strengths and weaknesses of Singapore’s talent pool in the biotech industry?
Vishal Doshi (VD): The R&D process in the biotech industry involves a journey from research to translation and commercialization. One of Singapore’s strengths lies in the solid research being conducted in the country. However, there is room for improvement in building an ecosystem that facilitates the translation of research into commercial opportunities, where the industry leverages Singapore’s strengths as a country.
From my perspective, these include high-quality intellectual property (IP) protection, well-established Phase I infrastructure, and the potential to become a prominent hub for global and regional Phase II clinical trials. Given Singapore’s size, it can effectively enroll an adequate number of patients for Phase I and II trials, positioning itself as a leading hub in this regard.
Kr: What other initiatives can Singapore implement to attract and retain top talent in the biotech industry?
VD: Singapore has developed several initiatives to foster the development of therapeutics, such as the National Precision Medicine Programme with a focus on genetic research, as well as advancements in cell therapies and gene therapy.
In my view, Singapore has a unique opportunity to excel in the clinical stage of therapeutics development rather than solely focusing on the preclinical stage. This opportunity is increasingly evident and presents an ongoing potential for growth.
Kr: What are some of the initiatives that AUM Biosciences have implemented to attract these talents?
VD: From the inception of our company, we have made it clear that we prioritize hiring based on talent rather than location. This principle is fundamental to our approach. Additionally, we seek individuals who align with our vision rather than solely focusing on their expertise. It is essential, particularly at the senior management level, to have individuals who share our vision and can contribute to its realization.
Kr: What are your thoughts on cross-pollinating talents and manpower across geographic regions?
VD: When it comes to cross-pollination, I don’t believe it is about bringing talent from one geographical location to another. Science knows no boundaries, and this applies to biotech and biopharmaceutical companies as well. The measure of success should not be based on the number of people brought into or out of Singapore. Instead, cross-pollination should be approached by running global operations and conducting global clinical trials.
Geographical presence should be determined by the need for specific talent rather than hiring based on location. In this way, cross-pollination occurs naturally, and it encompasses the exchange of ideas, experiences, journeys, execution, and research strategies. Learning from the best, whether in the US, Europe, or other Asian countries, helps build a robust intellectual ecosystem.
Kr: What role do you see investors playing in the development of Singapore’s biotech industry?
VD: Investors play a vital role, but it is equally important to view their involvement as an opportunity rather than expecting every investment to be successful. This perspective applies to both biotech companies and investors themselves. Companies in this field must be prepared for both failure and success, and investors should adopt the same mindset.
Considering the current stage of Singapore’s biotech industry, the relationship between investors and entrepreneurs needs to be closely knit. It is crucial for investors to actively support entrepreneurs from the outset, taking risks and leading from the front. Their role is pivotal in fostering the growth of the ecosystem, and we are witnessing encouraging improvements in this regard.
Kr: Given the current investment climate, what are some strategies that a biotech startup should adopt?
VD: In the biotech industry, cash is crucial for drug development. One important lesson I have learned throughout my career is that when you have the necessary funds, it is essential to focus on efficiency and prudent use of cash.
However, it is equally important not to reinvent solutions that already exist in the market. Introducing inefficiencies into the process can harm business operations, and reversing them becomes difficult. The industry is increasingly emphasizing the need for efficiency at various stages of research, including drug discovery, clinical development, and commercialization. Efficient processes are essential to reduce costs and improve the probability of success.
To ensure financial prudence, biotech startups can prioritize R&D investments in projects with high success and commercial viability potential. Furthermore, they can explore licensing opportunities for non-core intellectual property or technologies that can generate additional revenue streams.
Regular evaluations of financial performance and business strategy help identify areas for improvement and cost-saving opportunities, enhancing the organization’s financial resilience.
Kr: What alternative methods can biotech companies use to raise funds?
VD: I believe now is the opportune time to be creative in seeking fundraising. A startup can tap into various sources, including venture capital, family offices, and non-dilutive funding options.
Moreover, licensing agreements and partnerships with big and medium-sized pharma companies present avenues for fundraising without significant equity dilution.
While prioritizing growth, it is important not to compromise capital preservation. Collaborating with other companies through co-development agreements and licensing arrangements offers a viable approach to both conserve capital and advance progress without excessive equity dilution.
Kr: In the face of these challenging circumstances, how do you perceive AUM Biosciences’ ability to navigate and overcome difficulties?
VD: Our fundamental strength as a business provides a solid foundation for growth and attracts investor engagement. Managing our growth effectively is our primary challenge, and we are confident in our ability to do so.
Several positive factors work in our favor, including ongoing drug development, a robust portfolio, established licensing agreements, and secured non-dilutive funding.
We place significant emphasis on the execution of clinical trials, recognizing their cost implications in the drug development process. By establishing an efficient clinical development structure that balances cash conservation and milestone achievement, we aim to enhance our chances of success.
Kr: What are your hopes for the future of Singapore’s biotech scene?
VD: In the context of the Singapore biotech scene, my aspiration is to witness the emergence of an increasing number of clinical-stage companies. Specifically, I envision Singapore nurturing companies that have completed Phase I and Phase II clinical trials, going beyond the late preclinical stage. Such advancements would not only contribute to the growth of the local biotech industry but also have the potential to generate successful exits.