The Straits Times carried an article in today’s (9 September 2008) print edition on how Yoshiaki Ito’s team had discovered how a tumor suppressor gene RUNX3 is implicated in colorectal cancer.
Periodically, the local media likes to run articles like this that purport to put Singapore on the global research map. The headlines are usually fairly grandiose, and frequently mention how local research will help to find the cure for cancer. Articles like this help to convey the message that we’re not spending billions of dollars on research for nothing.
Granted, the research is probably impactful, and was published in a prestigious journal, but I wonder how many people realize just how little this means in the grand scheme of things.
First of all, research related to oncogenes is relatively widespread these days. Today is not the 70’s, when the gene for p53 was first discovered, so in terms of scientific impact, research like Ito’s isn’t especially groundbreaking or earth-shattering. Certainly, it’s only one piece of the puzzle in the search for a cure for cancer.
[Aside, p53 was identified by a team of which David Lane was a part of. He was brought in to Singapore by A*Star a few years back, but has since left for another appointment. As distinguished as he is, I have heard from someone who used to work in his lab in Singapore that he spent an inordinate amount of time watching cricket in his office.
For all that the PM likes to say about Singaporeans not being 'hungry' enough, we certainly like to hire foreigners that ought to be put out to pasture already. Personally, I'm not surprised. It's a lot easier for a bureaucrat who knows nothing about innovation to justify hiring a research brand name than an up and coming under thirty-fiver. Certainly it's easier to explain things to the boss if the whole biomed shebang collapses in an abject mess, e.g. But I hired the best! Who knew that they were over the hill and unproductive?
But I digress. :o) ]
Second, if in the ‘grand scheme of things’ we’re referring to Singapore’s success as a biomedical hub, this discovery is again nothing to be impressed about.
Viable diagnostic kits based on this discovery are, in Ito’s words, years away, and who knows if a commercially successful product will eventually come to market?
One of the ugly truths of Singapore’s foray into biomedical research is that despite more than ten years of investment, we have had very little to show for in terms of economic success. We have had better luck with pharmaceutical manufacturing, but that is to be expected, as we have offered the same deal to big pharma as we have to all other MNCs, namely tax breaks, land, fast track approval, political patronage, and a skilled, pliant workforce. Despite the giant sucking sound emanating from China and India, corporations are still going to invest in places like Singapore if only to not put all their supply chain eggs in one basket.
So what reasons do I have to offer for stating that Singapore has not been very successful in its biomedical, and more broadly speaking, science research enterprise?
Sometimes, it really does help to have friends who are government scholars or who work in relatively high responsibility positions in the public sector.
A friend who works at EDB told me that a few years ago many foreign companies in general did not want to set up research labs here to do really serious or important research. Labs to do yield optimization, process streamlining-type research are ok. But the new new things will not be discovered in labs here. Manufacturing-type investments were much easier to score (Think biologics manufacturers like Lonza or Genentech). I don’t think the situation has improved much in the last few years.
I have it on good authority from someone who works at Exploit Technologies that they have serious difficulty attracting companies to license technologies. In most cases, the technologies are simply not viable, don’t perform as claimed, or are a bad fit for the companies’ existing business models.
A simple check on the Exploit website shows only a handful of ‘success stories’, if they can even be called that, and many of them are engineering related rather than biomedical related. SIMTECH in particular, has been doing fairly well, which may be expected due to its close collaboration with the manufacturing industry.
A similar check on Bio*One Capital turns up a similar story. Only a handful of companies have Singapore operations. Notably, there has not been a successful IPO for any Singapore-based Bio*One Capital funded company and only a few successful exit-by-acquisitions. And this is after Bio*One has been in existence for something like 10 years. If Bio*One was a private VC, it should have gone out of business already.
A dirty little secret is that some of the companies in Bio*One Capital’s stable are already defunct, despite their logos still being on the website. I should know, one of them just vacated the premises one floor down from my office a few months ago.
It’s evident that Singapore’s research drive isn’t as successful as the media would like to paint it. Indeed, it faces some monumental challenges. I have my own take on some of these problems, which I have seen few commentators anywhere else speak on, and I will comment on these in a future post.