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

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Singapore infrastructure a draw for pharma giants

The Business Times by MARC O'DONOGHUE

IN 50 YEARS, Singapore has undergone significant transformation from a developing country into a thriving metropolis. Today, with its robust physical and regulatory environment, global connectivity and skilled talent pool, this city-state is a multidisciplinary hub for businesses looking to access emerging market opportunities across the region.

The nation's strong foundation in research and development (R&D) has drawn significant investments from research institutes and biopharmaceutical companies. In the span of a decade from 2005 to 2015, we have seen a 30 per cent increase in the number of clinical research programmes conducted in Singapore.

As more companies embark on drug discovery and translational clinical research in Singapore, the implications on its manufacturing output cannot be overlooked. Today, six out of the top 10 drugs globally are made in Singapore.

Like many pharmaceutical giants, AbbVie, a global research and development-based biopharmaceutical company has also set our sights on Singapore. To support our global manufacturing pipeline in therapeutic areas such as immunology and oncology, we have invested S$400 million to open a manufacturing plant at Tuas Biomedical Park.

As Singapore continues to push the envelope in clinical research and biomedical manufacturing, there has never been a better time for pharmaceutical companies to develop the agility and scale to ride on the opportunities for growth and business continuity. There are three important factors that will further spur Singapore's success and growth in the biomedical and science technology sector.

ADVANCED MANUFACTURING CAPABILITIES TO STAY AHEAD OF THE CURVE

At the turn of the century, the government recognised that the pharmaceutical and medical science sector will be an important contributor to the country's economy.

Competitive clusters such as Biopolis and Tuas Biomedical Park were established to foster synergy, and pharmaceutical companies have since benefitted from a skilled talent pool, R&D expertise, government incentives and manufacturing capabilities.

Today, the biomedical manufacturing cluster that employs more than 20,000 people across 50 plants is an important contributor to Singapore's manufacturing sector with a combined output of more than S$30 billion.

With the fourth industrial revolution upon us, there is immense potential to accelerate the development of novel therapies such as biologics and small molecule drugs with advanced manufacturing expertise.

By adopting machine learning, automation, industrial robots and advanced analytics, we can enhance traditional models and enable new manufacturing processes. Leveraging data analytics, for example, plant managers can easily track the manufacturing facilities, predict downtime with greater accuracy and intervene with preventive maintenance, helping to improve operational efficiency.

To ensure the competitiveness of the manufacturing sector in the face of disruptive technologies, there has been significant funding under the five-year Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 (RIE2020) plan.

While this is welcome news for pharmaceutical giants, we need to ensure that local biomedical companies have a share of the pie to adopt more robust manufacturing technologies to remain future-fit.

To this end, Abbvie works alongside many of the pharmaceutical companies here to identify the areas of focus for the industry. This ensures alignment and a shared commitment that will best serve us over the next few years to enable an efficient approach to the RIE2020 plan.

INCREASING DEMAND FOR NOVEL, PERSONALISED MEDICINE

Changing demographics and lifestyles have prompted an increase in healthcare expenditure and created an important market for drug innovation and manufacturing.

With personalised medicine on everyone's mind today, the ability to design targeted therapeutics to treat different sets of patients is more than just a rudimentary concept. For immune-mediated diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel diseases and chronic skin conditions such as psoriasis, there is a real unmet need for personalised medicine. The common theme among all of these conditions is that they are immune-mediated, meaning the immune system is the main factor causing the inflammation.

Many current treatment options will need to make way for new ones with evolving patient needs and, increasingly, we are going to require multidisciplinary research to understand active signals in the immune system, in hopes of finding novel ways to delay or arrest disease progression.

Innovation in science is also most evident in oncology. Over a span of four years, clinical trials in oncology have increased steadily to account for 30 per cent of all trials in 2012 to 53 per cent in 2015.

New drugs are entering the market at an unprecedented pace and there remains a pipeline of oncology drugs in various stages of clinical development, all with the hopes of addressing growing unmet needs.

It was estimated that the lifetime risk for developing cancer in the Singapore population is around one in every four to five people. With cancer incidence on the rise and becoming more complicated to treat, a one-size-fits-all approach of chemotherapy and radiation therapy can no longer be the standard of care for all cancer patients.

We are coming to recognise that cancers are fundamentally diseases of the genome and understanding cancer begins by identifying the abnormal genes and proteins present in an individual's tumour. Researches into specific genetic mutations and other molecular abnormalities in an individual's tumour will be key to identify, target and develop treatments for many types of cancers.

BUILDING HUMAN CAPITAL

In the course of my career, I have observed the paradox between meeting growth opportunities in the emerging biopharmaceutical manufacturing sector and addressing the stiff competition to fill vacancies due to skills shortage and recruitment difficulties.

With the emerging biopharmaceutical manufacturing sector expected to create an additional 300 jobs over the three years between 2017 and 2019, there are immediate actions we can take to address the demand for a skilled talent pool.

The slew of training initiatives in partnership with Workforce Singapore and Singapore Economic Development Board has proven to be an effective platform to develop industry competencies. We have been very encouraged by the response since the introduction of the Local Biologics Skills Training Programme which allowed us to groom fresh graduates through on-the-job training, while also enabling us to reach mid-career professionals looking to reskill and move into the biologics manufacturing sector.

As we look ahead to building the next generation of workforce, we need a new understanding of what drives millennials. We need to be cognisant of the reality that change is a constant for millennials as they find their footing in their career.

When attracting these talents, organisations need to consider how job changes are viewed as the "new normal" and assess candidates based on aptitude and the breadth of experience they bring.

Importantly, what the organisation can offer as a unique experience will draw and retain millennials - such as a different work culture, differentiated development opportunities and even defence against burnout.

It is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are the three important factors that will bolster the capabilities of pharmaceutical companies to pioneer innovations and develop new technologies.

As healthcare needs continue to evolve over the years, this is an exciting time to be in the biomedical and science technology sector; for public-private companies, large-local enterprises and even small-to-medium enterprises.

  • The writer is site director, AbbVie