An essential and complete guide for the biotechnology companies operating in Singapore.

Industry Articles

Overview of the Singapore PharmBio Sector

From manufacturing, research and development to commercial operations, Singapore is the region’s leading biomedical sciences cluster for companies to serve the needs of the regional market and beyond.

The pharmaceutical sector is an important contributor to the Singapore economy, accounting for more than three per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Pharmaceutical manufacturing output has more than tripled since 2000, with the sector generating about S$16 billion worth of products in 2016. The sector is also supported by a highly skilled workforce of around 6,900 people.

Singapore is a leading location for best-in-class manufacturing plants, where a wide range of products including Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API), drug products and biologics drug substances are launched and produced. Industry leaders like GSK, MSD, Pfizer, Novartis, Roche, Sanofi, AbbVie and Amgen have global manufacturing hubs in Singapore. In October 2017, for example, AbbVie opened its Biologics Manufacturing Facility in Singapore, a move which expanded its manufacturing capabilities to biological products, in addition to chemical Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs). The US$400 million campus will support the company’s global manufacturing operations to boost AbbVie’s production capacity in immunology and oncology.

Singapore remains committed to investing in infrastructure, talent and technology to support the growth of the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry.

Singapore has invested significantly in developing the infrastructure and general ecosystem to support pharmaceutical manufacturing. More than 300ha of land has been dedicated to pharmaceutical manufacturing at Tuas Biomedical Park, where basic infrastructure like road networks and utilities (e.g. power, water, telecommunication, sewage lines) have been pre-built, to accelerate set up times for pharmaceutical companies.

Other flexible capacity options are also available to enable pharmaceutical manufacturers to plan for capacity needs. Firstly, the government has been working with contract manufacturers to expand their capacity, so that they can offer commercial and clinical scale production options to companies intending to outsource their manufacturing needs. In addition, there are a number of prebuilt facilities that can be fitted-out to accommodate a variety of manufacturing scales and technologies, such as single-use technology (SUT) manufacturing platforms. This allows companies to set up manufacturing with smaller footprints quickly, and at a much lower upfront capital cost.

Another strategic advantage Singapore holds is its world-class education system and highly-skilled workforce. Many companies set up their operations here to tap on the deep manufacturing expertise developed over the years.

To ensure that the workforce is continually equipped with relevant skills, Singapore will continue to develop the country’s talent pool by focusing on three fronts - integrating industry experience into the school curriculum, boosting on-the-job-training and building up the local leadership pipeline for the pharmaceutical manufacturing sector.

Since 2014, the Singapore government has been developing new training programmes for the industry, in partnership with pharmaceutical companies. These programmes are developed with the goal of training up an expanded pool of manufacturing-ready talent to meet the growing needs of the local industry. Pharmaceutical manufacturers can tap on these programmes to train fresh graduates and mid-career professionals on the job, either in Singapore or at overseas plants.

On the technology front, the government has worked closely with pharmaceutical manufacturers to not only support adoption of new manufacturing technologies to Singapore manufacturing sites, but also build up capabilities to develop, testbed and industrialise new technologies from Singapore.

In September 2017, the landmark Pharma Innovation Programme Singapore (PIPS) project was launched at the Future of Manufacturing Summit. PIPS draws upon the combined expertise of A*STAR, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Pfizer, Merck (known as MSD outside of the US) and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). The consortium of leading public research agencies and global industry leaders will jointly invest in developing new manufacturing technologies and subsequently supporting their adoption in the companies’ Singapore facilities.

The nascent biotech industry in Singapore has made good progress over the past few years, the result of continued investments in public sector basic science and research, as well as an increase in financing and commercialisation opportunities.

Over the past six years, the number of local biotech start-ups has more than doubled to about 50, with between three to four formed annually in recent years. Several of these companies have become success stories, including ASLAN Pharmaceuticals. Founded in 2010, the company was listed on the Taipei Stock Exchange in June 2017, raising about US$33 million in the process.

The reasons for the biotech sector’s strong growth are multi-fold. Singapore provides a conducive environment for biotechs to set up and commercialise their innovations. A*StartCentral, an incubator lab with a co-working space and a life sciences lab, was established in March 2016 to provide biotechs with a central networking area and an asset-light model to kick start operations and continue developing their assets in the initial start-up phase.

At the same time, there is growing interest from private investors into the local biotech space. In February 2016, Lightstone Ventures partnered with Singapore investment firm Temasek Holdings and EDB Investments to close a S$50 million fund focused on investing Singapore-based life sciences technologies and companies.

Much emphasis has also been given to ensure that Singapore’s local enterprises get access to the growing pool of biotech talent. Under the Technology for Enterprise Capability Upgrading (T-Up), run by A*STAR, research scientists are seconded to local enterprises for up to 2 years to boost their research and development capacity. In addition, the technology transfer offices (TTOs) in various universities also provide avenues to mentor academics and guide their research towards commercialisation opportunities.

Singapore remains committed to strengthening capabilities in translational and clinical research. In 2016, S$4 billion, more than one fifth of the S$19 billion national research and development budget, was dedicated to the Health and Biomedical Sciences (HBMS) domain as part of the Research Innovation Enterprise 2020 plan to strengthen Singapore’s innovation capabilities and develop a pipeline of early stage companies for the ecosystem.

The sustained investments into HBMS over the years has allowed Singapore to build scientific strengths in key therapeutic areas like oncology and ophthalmology. The Experimental Therapeutics Centre (ETC) and the Drug Discovery and Development Unit (D3) housed within the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), for example, has developed in Singapore, ETC-159, a treatment for colorectal cancer that is currently undergoing clinical trials.

Singapore’s strong track record in clinical trial operations has also drawn leading pharmaceutical companies like Novartis, Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim, and Roche to conduct their clinical trials here. Today, about half of the trials conducted in Singapore are oncology trials. Public health institutions like healthcare group Singhealth and Changi General Hospital, for example, have also invested to build a network of early phase clinical research units to support companies’ clinical trial needs, including conducting first-in-human trials.

Singapore will continue to provide an integrated research ecosystem for pharmaceutical companies, emerging biotechs and entrepreneurs to access world-class facilities and forge public private partnerships to advance the discovery and development of healthcare solutions for human health and wellness.

The way healthcare is delivered is changing and will continue to evolve in the future. The costs of healthcare are rapidly rising, resulting in government budgets that are becoming increasingly strained in the face of ageing populations. New technology is reshaping healthcare delivery models and we can expect the pace of change to accelerate further.

Three key trends are likely to take on increasing importance. One is the shift-towards value-based care, in which doctors are paid according to their patients’ healthcare outcomes. Another is a move from treatment to prevention and the third is a shift towards personal medicine, in which medications are tailored specifically for the individual.

These trends call for a rethink of traditional business models, and an embrace of digital technologies and data-driven decisions.

Singapore is adapting to these trends. We are seeing a shift whereby treatments are getting increasingly precise. In the future, this will increasingly be enabled by the adoption of national electronic health records, combined with personal genomic, clinical and lifestyle data. Singaporeans can already access their health record, hospital records and medical appointments on a single platform in the HealthHub app that was launched in 2016.

The country is also positioning itself as a location that helps to facilitate cooperation, collaboration and partnerships. We have the full spectrum of companies here – from start-ups to local enterprises, healthcare providers, research institutions and large global multinational companies. As the eco- system thrives, the connections and links will increase the chances of finding new patient-centric solutions.

Many companies see the potential in digital health, and are investing in the future today. In 2015, global pharmaceutical group Merck & Co set up its global innovation hub in Singapore focusing on areas such as data science and analytics, cyber security, and software engineering. The hub includes a digital health studio, bioinformatics and cognitive computing – tools and functions that aid the company’s efforts to provide solutions for better healthcare.

At the other end of the spectrum, the vibrant start-up scene has seen the emergence of more than 50 local digital health-startups, drawing interest from regional health technology companies, investors and tech giants including Apple, IBM and Google.

The future of the pharmaceutical industry remains bright. Demand for healthcare will continue to grow as populations age and incomes rise, particularly in Asia. There will be challenges from disruptive technologies to new modes of drug delivery.

Seizing new opportunities while tackling these challenges will require companies to adapt and embrace change. To this end, we will work with our partners to meet these challenges and ensure that Singapore remains a trusted location for the industry.

Ms Ho Weng Si
Director, Biomedical Sciences
Singapore Economic Development Board