As electronics founders, Singapore turns to drugs

Jason Szep

A bus, painted in futuristic swirls of green and blue, picks up scientists from Singapore’s top university and chugs past a row of aging factories before dropping them off at a gleaming new bioscience park.

The trip highlights a transition in Singapore’s convalescing economy as policy-makers gravitate towards biotechnology and away from the electronics industry that catapulted the island from third world to first in three decades.

The free, air-conditioned ride to the Biopolis complex is also a reminder of the first-class treatment afforded the nation’s hottest new commodity – scientists.

Singapore’s success in remoulding its economy to one powered by research and exports of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, rather than hard disk drives and computer chips, hinges on how quickly it can lure and groom scientists.

China, India, South Korea, Australia, Malaysia and Taiwan are also pouring money into biotech, with varying degrees of success.

“Singapore has been very, very quick moving in establishing an environment that is very favourable for biotech,” said Susan Ward, managing director of Health Resources International, a consultancy specialising in Asian healthcare.

Luring scientists and developing a niche focus is essential to Singapore’s Biotech ambitions, Ms Ward says, noting that the island trailed China and India in biotech entrepreneurialism.

Singapore accelerated its courtship of the world’s scientific community this month with the opening of Biopolis, a S$500 million ($288 million) high-tech neighbourhood of research facilities designed as a base for scientists and their families.

The seven shiny buildings with space-age names such as Chromos and Proteos house a sprawling medical library, a 500-seat auditorium, lecture theatres, offices, caf? and a lab housing up to 200,000 mice bred for medical research.

To draw scientists and biotech funds into its 40,000-square-metre Biopolis park, Singapore is offering a mix of tax breaks, grants other incentives worth $1.3 billion – and one of the world’s most relaxed legal climates for research.

Facing fewer restrictions than in the United States or parts of Europe, scientists can clone human embryos and keep them alive for 14 days in Singapore to produce stem cells – master cells that can grow into almost any tissue in the body.

This is fast turning Singapore into the world’s capital for work on stem cells, which can be harvested from aborted embryos, embryos left over from in-vitro fertilisation or embryos cloned for the purpose.

Alan Colman, who famously cloned “Dolly” the sheep, moved to Singapore last year when his European funding slowed.

Some scientists say stem cell research could yield a cure for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

Steven Fang, chief of Cordlife Pte Ltd, which is involved in stem cell work, chose Singapore over Cambridge, Massachusetts as his group headquarters after a merger with Cambridge-based Cytomatrix in April, drawn by a combination of tax breaks, relaxed laws and its proximity to fast-growing China.

“We had a lengthy internal discussion over whether to base in Singapore or Cambridge,” he said. “Our key investors were from Asia, and that was another reason.”

The potential for explosive biotech growth in China and India means forging a quick niche is essential, Philip Yeo, the head of the government agency that runs Biopolis, told Reuters.

“We cannot compete with America. We cannot compete with Europe, so we look for areas where we have an advantage. An advantage is that we are in Asia. We can develop a niche.”

Singapore aims to double its biomedical output to S$20 billion by 2010, or about 12 per cent of the island’s economy, and raise its share of manufacturing to 15 to 20 per cent by 2005 from seven per cent now, filling a gap left by shrinking electronics.

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