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From Techno to Bio – Entrepreneurship in the Lion City
Interview by: Sulastri Kamis

A technopreneur turned bioentrepreneur, Dr. Chia Boon Tat has more than his fair share of experiences of starting
up an enterprise. What is truly amazing of this unassuming man is his ability to spot potential. When the dotcom
industry came to a standstill in the early 2000s, he made a switch to the life sciences, setting up IMOLABS. In an email correspondence, APBN speaks to Dr. Chia on his journey and what he thinks of the future of bioentrepreneurship
in Singapore.

What kind of services does IMOLABS provide to the life science industry?

Interactive Micro-organisms Laboratories Pte Ltd (IMOLABS) is a Singaporean company specializing in the use of microbial solutions to solve condition-specific problems in the areas of food production, environment management and human health.

IMOLABS’ business offerings include sale of standard products, licensing of customized solutions and contract R&D services.

IMOLABS’ core competency lies in formulating, up scaling and stabilizing both culturable and non-culturable components of microbial communities. These formulations have the ability to shift microbiomes which in turn bring about significant improvement in health and productivity. The formulations work synergistically with chemical inputs and produce consistent results in real situations. The solutions are 100% natural and fit well into current global trends to seek out sustainable and environment-friendly solutions.

What was the motivation for you to pursue probiotics and startup IMOLABS?

Prior to IMOLABS, I worked in the telecommunications sector and had the privilege to grow an engineering services company from scratch into a $200 million company within 10 years, with over 200 staff, offices in all the major cities in Asia and serving many MNC clients. However, the dotcom crash in the year 2000 brought the business to a standstill. I had to spend the following year cutting costs, laying off staff and fighting to stay afloat. When the situation stabilized, another shock laid waiting. The dotcom crash had transformed the entire industry and in the new reality, customers had considerably reduced their expense budgets and were no longer buying products and services in the same way. Instead they were opting for new technologies developed by startups which were significantly cheaper and easier to install.

This experience was humbling and painful. I had a firsthand experience of disruptive technologies at work, dismantling existing businesses and creating new ones.

It was during this turbulent time that I met my partner, Angelito Abaoag (Lito), an environmental microbiologist from the Philippines. He was then using microbial consortia to develop solutions for enhancing plant growth, for bioremediation and for improving human health. He was working out of a laboratory at the back of his home, built up from second hand equipment. Although they work, the products were rudimentary.

Fresh from the dotcom experience, I saw in Lito's work the seeds of another potential wave of disruptive technology, one which could bring about quantum jumps in productivity and transform many existing economic models in a wide range of industries including food production, environment management and human health enhancement.

We entered into partnership, created a company in Singapore, and rented laboratory space in a local incubator. Lito started developing a new line of microbial products from scratch in a more professional way, to satisfy quality standards demanded in developed countries and MNCs. The first product which emerged from the new platform was BioPond, a microbial consortia for maintaining the pond environment in aquaculture ponds. The unique feature of this product is the ability to degrade organic matter and earthy musty compounds in the water column and pond bottom. With this technology, fish & prawns grow faster with no “mud” taste; they taste like ocean catch.

We went on to achieve 2 significant breakthroughs. Firstly, we successfully manipulated and stabilized the non-culturable components of microbial communities. Secondly, we were able to make our microbial solutions work in the presence of chemical solutions. These 2 milestones fundamentally changed the way microbial solutions can perform and be applied in real field situations. This enabled us to break into a market traditionally dominated by chemical/synthetic products.

Since then, we have created many more new products. One of our star products is a feed additive which makes livestock eat less, grow faster and put on more lean meat, less fat. The product is currently sold in Japan, Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Another product with huge commercial potential is the phytosynbiotics – a range of human health supplements which can regulate glucose, cholesterol and uric acid in the body.

What is your opinion on the bio-entrepreneurship landscape in Singapore?

The bio-entrepreneurship landscape in Singapore is much less developed than the Info-Communications Technology (ICT) technopreneurship landscape.

Private sector bio-enterprises tend to focus on medical devises and diagnostics, with only a handful of companies working on therapeutics. There are also a small number of bio-enterprises active in sectors of agriculture and environment management.

The funding scene for bio-enterprises is lagging behind the ICT sector. ICT technopreneurship is supported by many accelerators and incubators, but there are very limited seed funding options for bio-enterprises.

In the area of research, the biotech landscape in Singapore is dominated by bio-medical research and in particular, cancer research. Research is mainly conducted by institutions in A*Star and the universities. A*Star has started reaching out to the private sector but the effort is recent and the impact on bio-entrepreneurship is yet to be seen.

Aside from being an entrepreneur, you teach bio-entrepreneurship as a module in Nanyang Polytechnic and Nanyang Technological University. How did that come about? Was it a natural progression?

The bio-entrepreneurship module came about as a win-win collaboration between IMOLABS and the tertiary institutions of education.

In the early years, IMOLABS rented laboratory space from Nanyang Polytechnic, and was regularly in contact with the school environment there. The school was already teaching bio-enterprise and bio-innovation. However, courses tend to be academic, and the school was looking for a better way to render these topics more relevant to the students.

During the course of developing solutions, IMOLABS has amassed a sizable private collection of biological resources and microbial cultures. We only use a portion of these resources, the remainder being placed in cold storage. Although we recognize there is tremendous potential in mining & commercializing the collection, we do not have the manpower or financial resource to do so.

During a brainstorming session with Nanyang Polytechnic, we hit upon the idea of engaging students to use our collection to develop prototypes. In turn, we will impart our experience in bio-innovation & entrepreneurship to develop and present business plans built around their ideas. With the initial batch of students, we faced many teething problems. But once the kinks were ironed out, the program grew from strength to strength. Today, the bio-enterprise students do not limit themselves to our collection; they work with a variety of suppliers and even make their own ingredients such as enzymes and plant extracts.

It was a natural progression as IMOLABS and the tertiary institutions of education realize the mutual benefits of working together.

Why do you feel that despite the innovative ideas that students churn out from the module, most shy away from considering fully commercializing it?

At the start of a bio-enterprise course, I make every student take a survey to profile his/her entrepreneurship potential. On the average, 80% of the respondents would have, at one time or another, toyed with the idea of starting their own business. However, the profiling indicated that about 80% of the students fall into the “corporate” category, i.e., those who would like to work within the framework of a structured organization where they are willing to take business risks but not personal risks. About 20% of the students fall into the “specialist” category where they find challenges pursing a technical/specialist career. Finally only 1%, i.e. 1 out of 100, would show entrepreneurship potential. The actual number of students who eventually decide to venture into a startup business is about 0.1% or 1 out of 1000. An example would be Ms. Tan Jia Chun who was a student of mine.

CASE STUDY 1: Life's Innovation

Ms. Tan Jia Chun attended the bio-enterprise program in her final year at the School of Chemical and Life Sciences, Nanyang Polytechnic (SCLNYP). During the course, her team developed a food-friendly insect repellent from plant extracts. The idea came about because her aunt, a food hawker, was repeatedly fined for spraying insecticide to keep cockroaches away from her stall. There was a need for a repellent which is effective and at the same time, safe enough to be used on food. Since graduation, Ms. Tan has founded Life's Innovation which is working with IMOLABS to develop functional food (e.g. breakfast cereals which increase mental performance, natural energy boosting beverages, etc.). She also intends to work with SCLNYP bio-enterprise students to market their bio-ideas and products.

The bulk of students, upon graduation, will either go work for a company or pursue further studies. The social and business environment in Singapore is such that many do not mind taking business risks within a structured framework but they are unwilling to take personal risks to start their own businesses.

Do you feel that developing an entrepreneurship culture at the school level is important to help drive the entrepreneurial spirit?

Bio-entrepreneurship education is about changing mindsets and attitudes. Nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit of young students while in school is crucial for the survival of our country and our society.

We regularly take in polytechnic and university students for industry attachment. We find that local students are good in executing procedural work but ineffective when faced with challenges where they have to think outside the box and develop their own procedures. Once I was talking to a group of local and foreign MBA students. I told them that I had a product to degrade bird pooh and asked if it had commercial potential. The local students scoffed at the idea and fussed over issues like safety, registration, market sizing, etc. On the other hand, the foreign students came up with a string of creative applications from cleaning solar panels without scratching them to cleaning animal cages, etc.

Personally, I feel that our generation of youths is missing out if they are just brought up to follow procedures. How are they going to survive in more difficult times?

It is this feeling that we need to do something about it which led to IMOLABS proposing the teaching of bio-entrepreneurship at the polytechnics and universities. Fortunately for us, Nanyang Polytechnic and the Nanyang Technopreneur Centre of NTU were forward looking and agreed to work with us. The program has been well received by the students, the schools as well as industry players. The students’ final business plan presentations are attended by many observers including entrepreneurs and leaders of MNCs, who use this platform to gather new ideas and monitor potential disruption to their existing businesses. See www.bioenterprise.imolabs.com and www.facebook.com/bioenterprise.hub for examples of product ideas and prototypes developed by students.

I do feel that the course has gone some way to inculcate entrepreneurial skills and mindset in students. It is gratifying to see the change in attitudes of some students at the end of the course: they think coherently, listen attentively, write clearly, speak confidently, solve with initiative and act responsibly. See Case Study 2 for an example of a student entrepreneurship project at the secondary school level.

CASE STUDY 2: Amy & Lase

Amy & Lase is a team from Methodist Girls’ School (Sec) who came together to participate in the Youth Entrepreneurs Competition 2013 organized by the Discovery Centre. Their business idea is an eco-friendly enzyme-based sanitizer to clean technology gadgets such as smart phones, touch-screen computers and digital cameras. The idea came about when they read a study which showed that smart phones contained many more germs than bathroom door handles. We helped the girls develop their product and mentored them on the marketing and selling of their product. You can monitor their progress at www.facebook.com/Smartcleanz.

How do you balance your activities as an entrepreneur and a teacher?

In IMOLABS, Lito and I divide up our responsibilities. Lito focuses on R&D and technical matters, and I focus on the business areas.

In true spirit of bio-entrepreneurship, the bio-enterprise education program is run as an enterprise itself. It is self-sustaining. The students spend their own money to make prototypes and earn it back by selling them. They get to keep the profits or bear the losses. I also do not do this alone. The courses are conducted jointly with an entrepreneur colleague, Ms. Lee Hwee Teng. We each allocate 1 day per week to this cause.

What are your strategies to overcome the stresses arising from your multiple portfolios?

If I am not working, I will be spending time with the family. One major advantage of being an entrepreneur is the flexible work hours. Although I put in many hours of work every day, I am able to arrange my work around the schedules of my family. If my son has a track and field competition, or if my daughter has a choir performance, I will always be there to support and encourage them. I will catch up by working late or on weekends. This is a wonderful arrangement as it allows me to be with my kids as they grow up.

Which direction do you see the bio-entrepreneurship landscape in Singapore heading in the future?

The bio-entrepreneurship landscape in Singapore needs to become more vibrant. Everybody in Singapore needs to get involved to build a bio-entrepreneurship eco-system.

Biotech and life sciences should be made more accessible to non-scientists. And in turn, entrepreneurship should be made more accessible to scientists. Our education system is doing a fine job increasing science literacy in the areas of the life sciences. However, it is important to be able to translate this scientific knowledge into something relevant or useful for day to day activities. For example, in New York, renowned biologist Ellen Jorgensen started Genspace, a do-it-yourself biotechnology movement where ordinary people can go to learn about biotechnology and get hands on with biotechnology in an open laboratory environment. I would love to see such initiatives take root in Singapore.

I would like to see more companies, both large and small, take a stake in the bio-entrepreneurship landscape by backing bio-entrepreneurship and bio-innovation programs in schools and tertiary institutions. They should play a bigger role in mentoring and providing seed funding to budding bio-entrepreneurs.

Policy makers should prioritize non-biomedical biotech clusters such as agri-tech. Although Singapore does not have a significant agriculture sector, it is located in the middle of an agricultural region. Singapore should leverage its strength in financial & infrastructure to become the agri-tech research hub for the wider region. The recent creation of the new public natural resource library in A*Star is an example of a movement in the right direction.

In our own small way, we also contribute to the bio-entrepreneurship landscape in Singapore by working with entrepreneurs with limited or no life science background to spin off bio-products and bio-businesses. These entrepreneurs understand markets but come often with the preconceived ideas that biotech is expensive with long gestation periods, and is very complex. IMOLABS is able to shorten the process for them by developing customized products to meet specific market demands. Case Study 3 is an example of how we implement this model with an entrepreneur.

CASE STUDY 3: Freshwerkz

A finance graduate from Nanyang Technological University with a Master's degree in technology commercialization from the University of Adelaide, Ms. Lee Hwee Teng worked in the telecommunications sector for over 10 years before making a career switch to become an entrepreneur. Sensing potential in the healthcare sector, she bought into a business selling health supplements. As a retailer, her profit margins were very thin. To grow the business, she realized that she needed to have her own range of products. Hence she collaborated with IMOLABS to create a new company, Freshwerkz, to commercialize a range of condition-specific phytosynbiotic health supplements. You can read more at www.facebook.com/phytosynbiotics.

Ms. Lee is also enthusiastic about sharing her bio-entrepreneurship experience and collaborates with IMOLABS to jointly conduct bio-entrepreneurship courses.

Any last words for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Be what you want to be. If you have an urge to start your own business, do it, don’t procrastinate.

Entrepreneurship is an enriching experience but it can be lonely and challenging. Before embarking on the journey, plan as much as possible. Planning helps to flash out weaknesses and highlight pitfalls. Once you start the journey, work hard, focus on your objectives, keep trying and stay positive. Also remember to keep innovating to maintain your competitive advantage and keep ahead of the competition.

About the Interviewee

Dr. Chia is a techno and bio-entrepreneur. Over the past 20 years, he has been actively involved in incubating, developing and nurturing hi-tech startups into commercially profitable businesses.

Dr. Chia Boon Tat is co-founder and chief executive officer of Interactive Micro-Organisms Laboratories (“IMO Labs”, www.imolabs.com). IMO Labs is a natural biotechnology company specializing in the use of microbial solutions to solve condition-specific problems and enhance productivity in the agri-veterinary, human health and environment industries.

In 2010, Dr. Chia developed and launched the bio-enterprise program for students.

Between 1996 and 2004, Dr. Chia worked in SGX-listed Keppel T&T Ltd and Telechoice Ltd where he held various senior management positions in operations, technology commercialization and strategic development.

Dr. Chia graduated with basic, Master and Doctorate degrees from the Institut National Polytechnique de Grenoble in France.

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Obesity / Outlook for 2018
Searching for the fountain of youth
Women in Science - Making a difference
Digestive health in the 21st century - Trust your guts
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