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FEATURE
Bioentrepreneurship in Asia
Dr. Erwin Chan
Chief Business Development Officer
Genewired, Singapore

Introduction - Worlds Collide

The words “Science” and “Business” were never placed in the same sentence throughout my education and learning at university. Researchers who “wandered off” into the world of business were hardly even spoken off again in the science tribes. And this was the attitude I adopted, keeping the worlds of science and business apart. It was much later (maybe too late) that I realized how closely integrated these two worlds were and how important this interaction helped in generating inventions, technologies, innovations and creating economies for the well-being of billions of people all over the world.

The collision of the worlds of science and business is the Bio-economy and its champion is the bioentrepreneur. Bioentrepreneurs help to take ideas from the lab and into the marketplace. Along the way, they take risks, make sacrifices and believe in their dream of impacting the world. For the last five years, I have explored and interacted with various systems, elements and stakeholders in the area of bioentrepreneurship in Singapore. In the process, I wanted to know what really makes the bioentrepreneur.

Singapore has defined a focus and vision to develop itself as a biomedical hub for Asia and the rest of the world. It has set aside funds for the development of infrastructure, education and attraction of science thought leaders. Initially, the plan was to develop ground-breaking pharmaceuticals and drugs but this changed into medical device manufacturing in the recent years. Singapore has proactively encouraged entrepreneurs to rise up and capitalize on the opportunity of biotechnology, biomedical devices, healthcare and more recently, mobile health. In comparison with the United States, traction has been rather slow and difficult. Singapore is one country with a strong desire to grow and groom bioentrepreneurs. However, even with all the monetary incentives in the form of grants, seed funds and investments, there is still a missing piece that defines the true underpinning of entrepreneurship not only in the bio-space but in all other industries.

An interesting observation is that high school students from Asian countries like Singapore, Japan and South Korea, rank very high on the measurement of science and mathematics competence1. One would expect the translation of this measurement to equate to a higher skew towards entrepreneurs in the scientific fields. However, many scientifically trained students do not move into science based jobs nor do they strive to create science-based business.

What prevents these science graduates from moving into the business of science? Why hasn’t bioentrepreneurs increased in the conducive environment created by a nation like Singapore?

The Entrepreneurial “Software” - RICH

Today, there are numerous modules of entrepreneurship being taught in schools and universities. The syllabus looks like a history lesson and is often taught by academics. This is the hardware of entrepreneurship - cold hard skills and knowledge of finance, management, operations, marketing, macro-economics and strategy. Too often, many of these skills are not useful to an entrepreneur at startup stage. More often than not, it diminishes the excitement and enthusiasm of a budding entrepreneur. It also fails to reflect the culture of entrepreneurship that is the missing link between our hard skills, knowledge and external factors. This is the entrepreneurial “software”.

When sharing about the entrepreneurial “software”, I often use the acronym of “RICH” - Entrepreneurs need to be Risk Takers, Innovative, Creative and ask themselves “How to add value to society?” These are important values which define an entrepreneur in any field.

In the Asian context, risk taking is synonymous with failure. Failure is often considered to be an “end point” rather than a process of learning. It is associated with shame (“losing face”) and other negative social stigmas. This is a big issue as entrepreneurial ventures demand a high level of risk taking, thereby increasing the chances of failure. In my interaction with many Asian bioentrepreneurs, many of them share a story or two of their failures in the journey of entrepreneurship (visit www.genewired.com to read interviews with the bioentrepreneurs). We seldom reflect and use failure as a teaching tool. Failure needs to be built into the system of learning. We can begin by creating the space to fail quickly and safely, by giving the skills to learn from failure and the courage to try again. This will be the most challenging shift for the Asian mindsets.

Innovation and creativity are two concepts widely spoken about in the entrepreneurship circles. You can hardly avoid these two words in any entrepreneurial talk. We often see innovation and creativity as very chaotic forces, striking at the spur of the moment and lighting up like a light bulb. Innovation and creativity can be harnessed through frameworks and tools that thrive in a diverse environment with a common purpose. The Institute for the Future released a study2 on the characteristics and drivers of future economies. They see a world that is globally connected with great complexity that will create new challenges for the future entrepreneur. We need to equip the next generation with skills like sense-making, multi-disciplines, design mindsets, etc... The entrepreneur needs to learn to work in such environments and conditions with innovation and creativity.

The last value requires the entrepreneur needs to look introspectively to understand how they are adding value to society, rather than creating more problems. Take for example a drug dealer. He is most certainly a risk taker, he develops innovative ways to smuggle drugs and is creative in the ways of developing business channels. However, he adds very little value to society in terms of causing more social problems. An entrepreneur needs to clearly see his value add and this is often beyond money alone.

The entrepreneurial software is a very important component in building bioentrepreneurs. The next challenge is to get this software into the next generation of scientists and researchers.

Installing the Bioentrepreneur Software

Knowing that it is easier said than done, getting the culture and spirit of entrepreneurship into the next generation has been relatively experimental. In my work with various institutes, we have co-developed various initiatives to build up bioentrepreneurship among youths and undergraduates.

In the bioentrepreneurship minor at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the syllabus requires the undergraduates to find a local bioentrepreneur to interview. During this exercise, the students gain a firsthand insight through shadowing and asking insightful questions. Students are also guided in the process of innovation that includes Sensing, Ideation and Creation. They use this new skill to identify needs and opportunities in their target markets to develop ideas for biomedical or healthcare products/services.

For the youths (aged 16-19 years old), a competition called the Asian Science Enterprise Challenge (ASEC) was co-created with Indonesia through Surya Institute and United in Diversity (NGO). It aims to get students from Singapore and Asia to work in cultural and personal diversity. Innovation processes based on Theory U Presencing3 equips youths to use science to solve complex and global issues like global warming, energy crisis, food security and mobility. The art and science of learning from nature, biomimicry is also encouraged through this challenge. The feedback from the participants has been very positive as many reflect changes in their attitudes toward science, entrepreneurship and their thinking process.

“There was a good mix of business and science which helps deal with current global issues. I have always been open to crazy ideas, but ASEC taught me how to turn these ideas into a reality,” K.S. Shreyas, 2010 Participant and 2011 Mentor

“ASEC itself helps us to challenge the boundaries we set upon our own application of science. Coupled with entrepreneurship which also entails originality as a unique selling point, individuals are able to set together links between two seemingly unrelated fields,” Vinod Tadikamalla, 2011 Participant and 2012 Mentor.

Lastly, there seems to be a diminishing interest and participation of adults in science after formal education. There are very few “spaces” where adults can explore science and keep connected with their sense of curiosity. In the last few years, communities of science have emerged like the DIYBio movement, BioArt, Quantified Self and Maker Faire tribes. While previously referred to as amateur scientists, the technology empowerment and rapid speed of information sharing through the internet has greatly enhanced the capabilities of these “amateurs”. These communities are a cultural hotspot of budding inventors, innovators and by natural progression, entrepreneurs. They attract and allow people who are not in science-related jobs or environments to continue their pursuit of scientific activity and curiosity.

The future of bioentrepreneurship will rely on more than these initiatives. Support from companies, educational institutes and government will need to come together to build a strong culture of bioentrepreneurship and bio-economy. Biomedical companies could develop leaders from within and give space for internal entrepreneurs, or “intrapreneurs” to flourish and use their tacit knowledge in their business operations and innovations. Universities will need to shift their role as knowledge curators to knowledge creators. Learning will also need to “de-silo” themselves as being either academic and non-academic. Governments will also need to create the space and resources for the emergence, growth and failure of bioentrepreneurs.

The blending of the worlds of science and business will continue to drive innovation, technology and major improvements to the well-being of billions of people. May the bioentrepreneur lead the way to the future.

About the Author

Erwin Chan is a cross-pollinator for technology, leadership, innovation and creativity in the biomedical and healthcare space. With a PhD in immunology and biomedical research, he has experience in technology entrepreneurship. He was with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR, Singapore), Institute of Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Singapore Management University and was the co-founder of a biomedical device startup. Erwin is a guest lecturer for Bioentrepreneurship at the Nanyang Technopreneur Centre of Nanyang Technological University (Singapore). He has a passion for sharing science and entrepreneurship to youths and runs the Asian Science Enterprise Challenge in collaboration with United in Diversity & Surya Institute (Indonesia) and Science Centre Singapore.

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