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Rena Dharmawan of Catalyst on bringing healthtech to fruition: Women in Tech

Written by Zhixin Tan Published on   7 mins read

Building the “Unilever Foundry or Y Combinator” of the med and health tech industry in Singapore.

Whenever Dharmawan Angela Renayanti, or Rena as she’s more commonly known, speaks about the medtech and healthtech sectors in Singapore, she likes to give this one extreme example: A student proposed the development of a sensor that could track the blood flow of an unborn baby when implanted into the umbilical cord.

“The technology is great but this [imaginary] startup will fail because no pregnant woman would want a foreign object implanted into their body where it could potentially harm their unborn baby,” said Rena, who is a practicing clinical surgeon.

Her narrative points to a major issue in the medtech field: many technically talented individuals who want to do good just don’t understand their target users–the patients–that well.

A way to circumvent this is to actually talk to healthcare professionals whose daily interactions with the patients could shed some light on their needs and demands.

But in Singapore, medtech and healthtech startups will rarely get to meet healthcare professionals organically. There isn’t a meeting point for them, according to Rena, who cited this as one main reason for co-founding Catalyst, a shared working space for medtech and healthtech startups

For this week’s Women in Tech entry, we spoke with Rena about Catalyst as well as her thoughts on these sectors in Singapore and what she is doing to improve the current situation.

KrASIA (Kr):  Tell us a bit more about yourself. 

Rena Dharmawan (RD): I was first trained as a bioengineer then as a doctor. I’m a SingHealth-registered surgeon specializing in cancer and thyroid cancer removal.

I also co-founded two Singapore-based medtech startups, Privi Medical and Jaga-me.

Privi Medical is a startup that develops medical devices to treat unmet clinical needs. I took a break from school to participate in the Singapore-Stanford Biodesign (SSB) Program in 2014 and Privi was the product of this program.

Soon after I returned from Stanford, I took part in HackMed, which is a hackathon organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to address public health problems in Singapore. There I met my co-founders for Jaga-me, an on-demand healthcare platform for medical and nursing services.

My role in these two startups is mainly as a clinical advisor. I provide them with clinical strategies as well as access to my connections.

My latest initiative is co-founding Catalyst, a co-working space targeting medtech and healthtech startups here in Singapore. It is yet to be launched but we’re working really hard on it.

Kr: What is one characteristic med and health tech startups share here in Singapore? 

RD: A lot of the startups here are very tech-driven. They are started by engineers and academic professors who came from a strong technical background. These people begin with a technology that they try to fit into a problem.

This tech-driven approach is fine but it isn’t always the best way to solve things. In fact, it doesn’t always work out well, like the sensor example I gave you earlier.

In contrast, Stanford taught us to be needs-driven, which is to first start with a problem, then think of a technology and solution to solve it. I hope to share this with the startups here and people who are interested in setting up their own med or health tech startups to help them avoid wasting time on their journey.

Kr: What is the biggest challenge for startups in Singapore’s healthcare industry? 

RD: The biggest hurdle is fundraising. There is a lot of money in healthtech, especially for app development because they are easy to understand, but when it comes to medtech the available money is significantly lower.

There are different types of medtech startups like those that manufacture medical devices and biotech startups that develop drugs, vaccines, and immunotherapy.

The risks in medtech are generally higher. Unlike Silicon Valley, there are very few venture capitalists here who fund the startups because they are simply not familiar and comfortable with the risks.

Kr: But there are many public grants out there, no? 

RD: True, there are many public grants out there, such as the National University Health System – National Health Innovation Centre Singapore Joint Medical Technology Grant (NUHS-NHIC Joint Medtech Grant), Innovation to Develop Grant, Innovation to Startup (I2START), National Research Foundation Central Gap Fund (Central Gap) and more.

These public grants provide up to SGD 1 million but the catch is that the startups need to have at least a partner from a public institution in order to access these grants.

Startups consisting of doctors from private practices are not eligible for the grants and can only apply to private funds provided by Enterprise Singapore.

Kr: Tell us a bit more about your latest initiative, Catalyst.  

RD: Catalyst is a hub that aims to connect startups in the healthcare sector with clinicians to help turn their ideas into viable products and services. It is located in the Alumni Medical Centre.

The alumni building is open to doctors, dentists, and pharmacists who went to school here in Singapore, making it something like a community club for healthcare professionals.

Catalyst started late last year when the co-founder Lai Kah Weng who was also the chairman of the alumni association thought the building was “dead”. He wanted to inject some life so he came up with the idea of Catalyst and we got connected through my boss at SingHealth.

Members of Catalyst can gain access to the amenities in the alumni building, such as the Owl bar that is popular amongst clinicians and the private gym next door.

The co-working space is new and is meant for med tech and health tech startups in Singapore.

Kr: How big is the place? 

RD: It is not a big space. In fact, it’s very small for a co-working space compared to that of WeWork for instance. We have about 30 desks, two suites with three more underway and quite a few hot desks. Although it is small, I like the coziness as it forces people to come together. It’s also perfect for hosting small-scale events.

Kr: How can Catalyst help improve the med and health tech landscape in Singapore? 

RD: What I really want is to see younger doctors starting to ask questions like:

  • “Is this the best treatment we can get?”
  • “Is the treatment/product/device we are using the best thing for the patients?”
  • “Couldn’t there be a better way to do it?”

I hope that by bringing the startups here [to Catalyst], more healthcare professionals can come and meet more people and through the interaction and networking, gain greater understanding about technology innovations and really think about how they can best help improve patient outcomes.

At the same time, we hope to provide startups here the opportunity to reach out to clinicians to seek advice from, to help with their clinical strategy.

Most importantly we want to create a space where med and health tech startups can come together and form a community where they can help each other. Resource sharing is definitely on the table.

KrHow do you juggle your time between your surgical practice and your work around tech innovations? 

RD: I’m quite lucky because SingHealth has been very kind to me to hire me as the entrepreneur-in-residence. On top of my role as a surgeon, I am also a clinical entrepreneur and instructor at the Center of Technology and Development (CTeD) at Duke-NUS Medical School. Basically what these appointments mean is that I am allowed to take time off from my surgical work to do all the tech innovation stuff.

I am still spending most of my time in hospital attending to my patients but in a five days work week, I am officially allowed 2.5 days off to work on my projects as a clinical advisor.

This arrangement was made because I told SingHealth that if Singapore wants more innovative med and health tech startups then I can’t be doing surgery on a full-time basis.

Kr: Why don’t you leave clinical practice and focus on tech innovations instead? 

RD: I don’t want to leave surgery because I’m still a doctor and surgeon first.

Besides, as a doctor, I always want to cure illnesses and help patients solve their medical problems. In order to know what kind of problems patients today are facing, I need to have access to the patients themselves and their data, which I could only lay my hands on if I stay in clinical practice.

If I left clinical practice, I’d just be another entrepreneur—which is nothing wrong but when I ask myself “who am I”—I still see myself as a surgeon and clinician first.

Kr: Is diving into entrepreneurship something you see yourself doing in the future? 

RD: What I like to do when it comes to tech innovation is to identify a problem, build a team and invent a solution then when the product reaches the stage whereby it is ready for prototyping or clinical trials, which is also known as the implementation stage, I let go and let the team runs it themselves.

Essentially, I’m not trained in the business side of things and that isn’t really my cup of tea anyway so I leave it to people who are better than myself. I’m thinking of getting an MBA but not anytime in the near future.

Maybe in the future when I’m brave enough to leave my clinical practice to become a full-time entrepreneur perhaps I will give the implementation phase a try.

For now, I’m still enjoying the identifying and invention phase.

Kr: What is your goal for the next 3-5 years? 

RD: I am currently working on another project that is looking to develop a medical device to treat bowel obstruction and it is still in a very early stage. I’ll still be working on that as well as Privi and Jaga-me. Frankly speaking, I’m not very active in Jaga-me but anytime they need a contact, a connection or clinical strategy advice, I’m here to provide that.

My greatest hope is to get Catalyst on track. For now, I hope it will take off and become the place for medtech and healthtech startups in Singapore. I hope to then have it move on to the second stage where it serves as an accelerator for medtech and healthtech startups.

Essentially, I want to grow Catalyst to become the Unilever Foundry or Y Combinator of the healthcare industry. That’s a dream but we are working towards it.

This article is part of “Women in Tech,” a series by KrASIA that highlights the achievements of women who are a driving force behind Southeast Asia’s tech startups.


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