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Playing instrumental role in the world's life science sector
WHEN a sizeable number of complex scientific instruments in the world are made in Singapore, that speaks volumes about the Republic - that an island city-state can punch above its weight when it comes to cornering the global life science tools market.
Increasingly, more such instruments - such as mass spectrometers and microarrays - are designed and manufactured in Singapore than before, as activities here move upstream.
In an interview with The Business Times, Singapore Economic Development Board's (EDB) director of biomedical sciences Ho Weng Si says: "Singapore is now playing a very instrumental role in many of these companies' manufacturing, and also R&D (research and development), operations. That's certainly a trend that we see and we hope to continue to encourage."
She notes that companies are also increasingly locating their R&D centres together with their manufacturing operations here for a seamless process - from product design to manufacturing out of Singapore and bringing products to market through their commercial headquarters here.
Says Ms Ho: "The journey is very much about moving upstream to not just producing, but also value engineering - how to make it better, and more efficient, and of course they are moving to product design as part of it as well."
For instance, Illumina launched its new bench-top sequencer MiniSeq, a cost-efficient model of its next-generation sequencing machine that packs the same power in a smaller footprint, in early 2016.
Says Ms Ho: "It was innovated, designed very much by Singapore engineers. I think we have partnered with some of their US colleagues, but the Singapore team has a very strong hand to play in it. After that, it went to prototype, and commercial manufacturing out of Singapore."
Quietly but steadily, Singapore has been growing the overall medical technology (medtech) pie by attracting global players in the field to set up shop here, leading to technology transfer and job creation.
Already, eight out of 10 top global players in the life science tools industry have some form of activity here, says Ms Ho.
Key global market players include Thermo Fisher Scientific, Agilent Technologies, Bio-Rad Laboratories, Danaher Corp, Illumina, Roche, Waters Corp, Bruker Corp, PerkinElmer Inc, QIAGEN, and Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD), among others.
Ms Ho notes that activities could be across all three areas of manufacturing, R&D and headquarters, or it could be primarily headquarters, primarily manufacturing or R&D.
In Singapore, the life science tools industry is a subset of the medtech segment under the biomedical sciences cluster. The latest EDB industrial production data released on Friday showed that the manufacturing output of medtech rose 17.7 per cent year-on-year in July, up from June's 8.7 per cent growth but down from May's 19.3 per cent growth.
Globally, the overall medtech market is worth about US$400 billion, and the size of the global life science tools and reagents market is worth about US$50 billion.
The global medical device and technology sector is expected to grow 5 per cent or more annually until 2022, reaching nearly US$530 billion, said market research firm Evaluate.
These high-tech, high-value and sophisticated instruments, such as genetic sequencing machines, are used in laboratories and pharmaceutical companies for research and increasingly in hospitals for clinical diagnostics.
With more governments, especially from emerging markets, ramping up research funding, this will drive the research tools market, as more new laboratories and hospitals have to be built and more tools are needed to equip these laboratories.
Also fuelling the trend is an ageing population, rising wealth and more health-conscious people, which lead to more healthcare spending.
Ms Ho says: "With the mega trends, I do think that the demand is going to continue to grow. For us at EDB, our goal is to ensure that Singapore continues to be competitive, to be able to ensure that we continue to have our fair share of the growth that the overall medtech is going to be experiencing."
Singapore's position as the leading global market player in certain segments of the life science tools industry has been a 15-year journey in the making.
The big government push into biomedical sciences began sometime in 2000, when investments went into building up the research innovation ecosystem here in a bid to grow biomedical sciences as Singapore's next engine of growth.
The first wave of life science tools players entered in the early 2000s, focusing mainly on manufacturing.
Today, Biopolis at Buona Vista's one-north is the biomedical sciences R&D hub while Tuas Biomedical Park is the manufacturing cluster of the industry, among other similar hubs spread across the island.
Skilled workforce for the medtech manufacturing segment, which constitutes about two-thirds of the total workforce for the biomedical sciences sector here, has also grown more than three times over the years.
Ms Ho says: "They need skilled personnel to be able to undertake complex instrument manufacturing."
Over the years, Singapore too has developed a strong pool of local suppliers, a boon for companies who choose to outsource certain processes or parts of their activities.
Ms Ho says: "Over time, we do think that localising their supply chain in Singapore will help them manage the overall quality as well as cost of the product, and we actively support this."
The Partnership for Capability Transformation (Pact) initiative is one such scheme to help large organisations, such as medtech players, work with local suppliers.
Projecting ahead, Ms Ho says there are a lot of opportunities in terms of engaging companies, not just in hardware but also in software, big data and advanced manufacturing.
She says: "A lot of these instruments are not just about the box, but also about the software that runs it.
"Software itself also just runs the box, so the next thing is, we want to make sure that we anchor the analytics teams that analyse all the data that come out of it and hopefully translate that into certain actionable insights that you can deliver to the researcher or the patient."
Noting that the life science tools industry is a bright spot, she says: "This is a growing sector for us. We have done well and we do see a lot of opportunities.
"For us, the position for Singapore is that companies themselves are evolving and we want to make sure we remain and continue to be a very strong partner in their growth."