She had a mission when she returned to Singapore 14 years ago - to create an institute with people who shared a similar vision and research approach.
At the EmTech Asia 2017 conference, Prof. Jackie Y. Ying, the Executive Director at Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN), A*STAR, told APBN that IBN has at present more than 630 active patents and patent applications. Twenty percent of which, that is 131, have been licensed, a very high percentage even when compared to places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
IBN was founded by Prof. Ying in 2003 to develop breakthroughs across the engineering, scientific and medical fields to improve healthcare and quality of life. Under her leadership, IBN currently focuses on multi-disciplinary research in nanomedicine, synthetic biosystems, biodevices and diagnostics, and green chemistry and energy.
Besides local talent, IBN also recruits people from different parts of the world. In the interview, Prof. Ying said, “We get people from different backgrounds to work in such a way that makes the best use of each person’s talent and expertise. When trying to create a technology that would be useful, it is important to file patents, and for these patents to be licensed. We are actively trying to make an impact through innovative research. Over the next five years, we aim to spin out more start-ups."
The institute has thus far spun off 12 companies to commercialize its innovations. For instance, Prof. Ying said they had spun out a company to provide drug carriers that combine targeting and synergistic carrier-therapeutic effects. The company has run various tests for IBN’s green tea nanocomplex made of EGCG, a component found in green tea that has anti-cancer effects. They are bringing the drug delivery system through scale-up and manufacturing. The carriers are expected to enter clinical studies and should reach Investigational New Drug (IND) application in a few years. However, all the processes necessary to develop and commercialize such technologies are costly and time-consuming.
Indeed, technologies intended for in vivo use usually take a long time to go through the various stages of clinical trials. For instance, Prof. Ying spun out a company named SmartCells in 2003 based on a technology platform she developed with her PhD student at MIT. This technology comprises a smart material that will release insulin automatically when the blood sugar level is high. Such nanomedicine can be taken orally so there is no need for patients to prick their fingertips or inject insulin. This system entered pre-clinical trials in 2010, and was acquired by Merck with an aggregate payment in excess of US$500million. Merck is taking this nanomedicine through clinical trials.
Being a pioneer in nanotechnology, how do you view the developments in the field?
For me, nanotechnology is only the means to an end. It is like a toolbox or an approach. We have many problems to solve. To do this, we will have to go through the toolbox and see if we have the tools available. If we don’t have the necessary tools, we will have to build the tools required. Further, we may functionalize the nanomaterials for different applications or we may build a whole new platform on a larger scale. For example, we use microfluidic systems together with nanomaterials for disease diagnostics.
Have you thought of taking on a corporate role or going into industry?
I am most keen on research inventions. I suppose I probably think very differently from many academics. I am looking for something more than publishing well. I see myself more as an innovator and entrepreneur. Corporate organizations have certain structures. I am more interested in developing technologies that are really disruptive, and this may be best done in a start-up type of environment. I also enjoy working with people who are talented and driven, who want to make a major impact.
You are also the editor-in-chief for the journal Nano Today. What is the greatest difference between being an editor, a researcher and an entrepreneur?
We are very proud that the journal (Nano Today) has an impact factor of more than 13, it is probably the highest impact journal based in Asia in our multidisciplinary fields, i.e. nanoscience and nanotechnology, chemistry and materials science. As the editor-in-chief, my job is to attract and publish excellent papers in our journal. It is important to know who is doing outstanding work and which research would be impactful. For a review article, does it give a very interesting perspective and deep insights? It requires knowledge and expertise to make good editorial decisions.
As a researcher, we have to come out with great ideas and execute them successfully with novel approaches. We have to be critical and set high standards for ourselves, so that we develop something that is really exciting and also practical.
As an entrepreneur, we have to take technologies all the way to successful commercialization. This requires both technical and business knowledge, and strategy in fundraising. It is the ultimate goal of a research enterprise as it can lead to a tremendous impact on society.
Due to her significant scientific and technological contributions, Prof. Jackie Ying has won many prizes and awards. One of the awards that touched her heart is the inaugural Mustafa Prize “Top Scientific Achievement” Award that she received in 2015 for her bio-nanotechnology contributions. “I think the Mustafa Prize is something that is truly special. It is a recognition of my laboratory’s research and innovations, and the impact that we have made through our technologies."
Prof. Jackie Ying has served on the advisory board for several start-up companies. For those who would like to kick start their own companies, her advice is to be realistic about what you want to do. “Doing research is one thing, but bringing the technology all the way to a product is another. It is not easy and you might require somebody with different expertise to help you in the process. You must learn when to let go and do what is best for your technology. Finding the right business partners who share your long-term vision and values would be critical, as they would persevere with you through all the challenges in this journey.”
At IBN, the research nature is interdisciplinary and application-driven to create new solutions to address complex problems. “We always focus on the problem, how we want to solve it. If we tackle it, what impact we can make. IBN hopes to make an impact through research in four areas, nanomedicine, synthetic biosystems, biodevices and diagnostics, and green chemistry and energy. For example, IBN researchers use nanoparticles to detect dengue from saliva samples. The presence of the dengue virus will be indicated by a simple color change. Patients no longer need to draw blood, and the simple paper-based test kit can detect the virus within minutes. This can greatly facilitate the control of infectious disease epidemics and help patients to receive timely treatment. In the effort to combat environmental problems, the institute has a Green Chemistry and Energy group, which develops catalysts that can convert carbon dioxide to useful chemicals, polymers or other materials, instead of just absorbing the gas from atmosphere.
Recent developments in antibiotics have not kept pace with the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria. With a unique approach, IBN researchers are trying to develop antimicrobial agents in the form of nanomaterials. Such nanomedicine can penetrate the cell membrane, causing the contents of the cell to leak out and thereby killing the bacteria. This approach prevents the bacteria from developing drug resistance.
“Research is a very difficult path. It requires a lot of discipline, self-motivation and team work. Sometimes we see people who think that getting a Ph.D. degree will land them good jobs. But a lot of researchers are working on the lab bench for their entire life, so one must really love doing experiments if he/she wants to choose this path." Prof. Ying said IBN looks for researchers who are passionate about their work, enjoy the challenging process, understand the purpose of doing it, and more importantly, who are driven to see things go from the bench all the way to application. “Good researchers always know why they do certain research and are passionate about their work. They are driven to make a difference."
“However, sometimes a person maybe good at what he or she is doing, but a lack of confidence will limit his/her ability to reach a greater potential. Sometimes, we see that in young women, so how do we help them to gain that confidence? You also see people who are not so ambitious although they can do a lot more. How do you push them to make them realize, ‘I can actually have an edge too?’ It is very fulfilling to mentor a person who has lots of potential, and who wants to develop beyond his/her comfort zone."
Prof. Ying enjoys working with young people. She deems it important to nurture the next generation and for them to contribute to society by doing great research. She feels it is important to have young people maintain optimistic and open-minded attitudes, which enable them to explore new opportunities and approaches.
As the number of women in science and engineering fields is still rather small, Prof. Ying remarked, “We need to encourage and support the young generation to walk a path that may not be obvious or easy. Women and minorities have to struggle beyond the norm to be recognized, and only very special people would give them opportunities to break the glass ceiling. Society has to ask why that is the case. Diversity can really give an organization an edge because people may see and approach things differently. We must be more open to embrace diversity because it is key to creating a truly innovative culture.”