Since 2000, when Singapore first positioned biomedical research as the fourth pillar of the country’s economy, government funding towards innovative life sciences start-ups and spin-offs has dramatically increased. These companies have greater access to funds, both from state actors as well as via private equity and public listings, but barriers remain and the Singaporean ecosystem still has a long road to travel to catch up with the world’s most developed funding landscapes, such as that of the US. Here, the heads of four Singaporean-based firms recount their funding experiences.
Cerecin – Keeping Its Options Open
CNS-focused Cerecin’s plans to launch Phase III trials for its Alzheimer’s candidate were put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic. In terms of funding these trials, President and CEO Dr Charles Stacey is keeping his options open to fund what promises to be a capital-intensive phase of the company’s growth trajectory.
Cerecin has had big backers behind it with a willingness to invest and the company has not needed to IPO, but there is always value in bringing in new investors.
“We are always looking at all available options. Cerecin has been fortunate to get to the stage it is at today through private funding, which is quite unusual. No other company has made it to Phase III trials in Alzheimer’s disease without public funding or big pharma partnerships.
“The capital necessary to progress to this stage of development generally mean that a company must partner or go public. Cerecin has had big backers behind it with a willingness to invest and the company has not needed to IPO, but there is always value in bringing in new investors. We have regular and ongoing exchanges in various countries; as a US-founded company, we have had conversations with NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange, but now that we are in Asia, we are also talking to exchanges in Hong Kong, and Korea.
“Currently, we can privately fund our Phase II programs in migraine and infantile spasms. However, if those start to move towards larger pivotal programs, our Alzheimer’s Phase III trial launches, and larger follow on studies in Migraine and Infantile Spasms, then we may look to add to our investor base with new private and or public market investors.”
Stacey goes on to explain why Singapore is still a logical base for Cerecin’s future growth.
“Moving to Singapore was a good decision that has suited the company very well. Every company is different, but from a talent, capital, and raw materials perspective, it still makes sense for Cerecin to be here.
“We have been able to recruit a strong team; however, it is worth noting that the Singaporean biotech ecosystem is relatively small. Although there is a good talent pool here in clinical operations, manufacturing, and supply chain, there are certain roles that are much easier to recruit for in biotech hubs like Boston or the Bay Area.
Cerecin has made substantial progress on the capital side, raising further funds with more pending, based on our programs, that we have been able to source in the region. In terms of manufacturing, we now have partners in Asia and have established an effective supply chain.
“The Singaporean government continues to be supportive with increasing investments in high tech innovative industries. It is still early, but there is clearly support for new sources of venture capital. We have been engaged with the government across various channels to feedback and help Singapore grow this important part of their economy.”
ASLAN – US Shift
Fellow clinical-stage biotech ASLAN Pharmaceuticals, which today focuses on autoimmune diseases, recently decided to delist from the Taiwan Stock Exchange in favour of NASDAQ. CEO Dr Carl Firth explains the rationale behind this decision as the company shifts its centre of gravity towards the more lucrative US market.
The US has the deepest and most knowledgeable investor base. We felt that we were much more amongst our peers in the US, they are the top biotech innovators of the world. And, increasingly, our investor base was shifting there
“There were a couple of different sides to [this decision]. From a portfolio perspective, I think there’s certainly been a shift towards a more global footprint and maybe a slightly more US-centric one. That is because many years ago we were developing assets in oncology and looking at tumours prevalent in Asia. Now we are looking at the immunology, autoimmune space and these are global diseases. Of course, there are patients in Asia, but the US market is still the largest one. Many late-phase studies will need to be conducted in the US, of course complemented by other countries. From a footprint perspective, we are expanding our team there, as well. I think that shift will continue.
“From a capital market perspective, we saw an opportunity to list our company in Taiwan because it had a vibrant capital market for biotechnology companies. Shortly after we did that, the US market opened up and we opted to do an IPO there as well. The US has the deepest and most knowledgeable investor base. We felt that we were much more amongst our peers in the US, they are the top biotech innovators of the world. And, increasingly, our investor base was shifting there.
“Moreover, the regulatory environment in Taiwan makes it challenging for biotech companies. It is set up for manufacturing companies, engineering companies, companies with stable revenue.”
Histoindex – A Much Improved Ecosystem
Precision diagnostics firm Histoindex began life as a spinoff from A*STAR and so received funding from the Singaporean government as well as from angel investors, corporations, and institutions. Co-founder and CEO Dr Gideon Ho highlights Singapore’s advantages for innovative start-up firms looking to grow in Singapore.
Even though other cities in the region have also started investing in healthcare, biotech, medtech and so on, I still think Singapore is the best place for a start-up like us
“I think we have to acknowledge that Singapore is not like the US when it comes healthcare innovation. We are still young. I actually see HistoIndex as having grown up with the Singaporean healthcare innovation ecosystem. When we started ten years ago, Singapore was also just beginning to invest in its biotech and medtech ecosystem. The only funding available then was early-stage funding. Then as the ecosystem grew, public support evolved, the start-ups – like HistoIndex – also grew. Today, there are many growth-stage medtech companies in Singapore, and the government is also more aware of how to support them, how to build new start-ups, how to bring in mentors and angel investors, and so on. Everything is coming together, and I am sure the ecosystem will continue to evolve along with the companies within the ecosystem, so I am very positive about the outlook of Singaporean healthcare innovation.
“Even though other cities in the region have also started investing in healthcare, biotech, medtech and so on, I still think Singapore is the best place for a start-up like us. In Singapore, you can do business with the US and Europe, as well as China and Asia more broadly, without having to deal with geopolitical considerations. Singapore also tops globally when it comes to competitive economy, education, IP protection, smart cities, governance and quality of living. There are many advantages to building a start-up here.”
Hummingbird – Going Global from Singapore
Singapore-based oncology player Hummingbird Biosciences recently raised USD 125 million in Series C financing, attracting a number high calibre international biotech investors. Co-founder and CEO Piers Ingram outlines how it plans to use the funds to expand its clinical and business development footprint globally while retaining a Singaporean base.
We see this financing as a significant validation of our multi-disciplinary, data-driven, systems biology approach to precision medicine for cancer and autoimmune disease, and the potential of our lead programs
“We are very encouraged by the strong interest from highly respected specialist investors such as Novo Holdings, Frazier Healthcare Partners, DROIA Ventures, Polaris Partners, Pureos Bioventures, Octagon Capital, among others, with continued support from existing investors including SK Inc, Heritas Capital, and Mirae Asset Venture Capital.
“As we are able to now understand biological systems much better and leverage the countless advances in the technologies and tools that can enable us to build this understanding, biomedical research is definitely entering a golden era. Hummingbird’s approach centres around deep and critical analysis of the underlying target biology to discover unique therapeutic antibodies that enables our pursuit of precision clinical trials. Our enhanced understanding of disease biology is achieved through our approach to drug development to ensure that we use the advances in biomedical research to our full benefit.
“We see this financing as a significant validation of our multi-disciplinary, data-driven, systems biology approach to precision medicine for cancer and autoimmune disease, and the potential of our lead programs.
“Our clinical stage pipeline programs are making good progress, and this has been a great motivation and source of excitement among our team, partners and investors. To deliver on both of these programs as well as our earlier stage programs, our teams are expanding significantly across US, Singapore and other global markets. Hummingbird has grown to a 60-something strong team across antibody discovery, pharmacology, computational biology as well regulatory affairs, CMC and corporate development since founding, and we’re very proud of our strong internal capabilities in these core domains.
“Looking forward, we plan to keep our core discovery and engineering work rooted in Singapore but expand our clinical and business development activities in a wider footprint. We currently have a team of scientists who oversee our key clinical programs in the US and Europe, and are in the process of setting up the foundations for our China operations.
“This Series C financing is a key milestone that will enable us to rapidly progress our lead programs into the clinic as well as support additional discovery work and development of our next generation programs.”