Image credit: Asian Scientist Magazine
Gone are the days when researchers are relegated to university hallways and facilities. Today, we see an increasing number venturing beyond the four walls of the laboratory and into the exciting, fast-paced world of entrepreneurship.
Case in point: Dr. Robert “Bob” Langer — academic cofounder of COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer Moderna —who is perhaps the most cited engineer in history. Aside from Moderna, Langer has founded over 40 other biotechnology companies, exemplifying the term scientist-entrepreneur. But it’s not just in biotech and big pharma that we are seeing this trend. In the Deep Tech arena especially, more and more scientists are taking a leap of faith and creating companies of their own.
From ultra-sensitive disease detection tools to high-speed wireless networks, Deep Tech innovations are pushing the frontiers of science and technology. Instead of making small tweaks, Deep Tech disrupts existing systems to solve society’s most pressing issues in society. Despite this, Deep Tech startups often struggle to attract investors, noted SGInnovate CEO Dr Lim Jui.
“Deep Tech investment is a high-risk, high-return endeavour,” he explained. “Traditional roadmaps for market expansion may not apply due to its long gestation period. And that’s on top of the technology risk and typically higher capital requirements.”
Accordingly, knocking down these barriers has become the mission of SGInnovate, which equips aspiring scientist-entrepreneurs with extensive resources to build and scale their Deep Tech startups in Singapore and worldwide. SGInnovate achieves this through a combination of strategic investments, community building programs and talent development initiatives.
Through SGInnovate’s workshops and workplace immersion programs, rising talent hone their technical capabilities as they gear up to shape the future of Deep Tech. According to Lim, these apprenticeship opportunities match students, fresh graduates and early-career professionals with budding Deep Tech ventures, allowing them to partake in immersive experiences across different fields like cybersecurity and data analytics.
But building a capable team is only half the battle, as young companies also need financial backing to scale up. As an early-stage supporter, SGInnovate’s investments of over S$50 million have catalysed the launch of everything from smart robots that pinpoint injury sites for surgery to artificial intelligence platforms for complex business decision-making.
While Deep Tech’s promise of high returns and big impact can entice funding, Lim is also acutely aware of the risks that investors must consider before pledging their support. By providing initial capital to high-potential startups, he and his team look to encourage other investors to do the same.
By showcasing up-and-coming entrepreneurial scientists and their inventions, SGInnovate’s community events are the perfect platform to stimulate interest from investors and corporate partners. Their Deep Tech Summit, for instance, brings together thought leaders and industry experts into one room, Zoom or otherwise, to exchange perspectives and spark new ideas in Deep Tech.
“A big part of our work is in educating and helping the private sector to understand the opportunities in Deep Tech,” explained Lim. “We hope to create a mindset shift to attract more investors and talents to take the plunge into Deep Tech with us.”
As the pandemic unfolded, the demand for science and technology roles skyrocketed across industries, noted Lim. With innovations being pushed quickly along the development pipeline, Singapore’s wealth of scientist-entrepreneurs rose to the occasion, devising research-backed solutions not just in healthcare, but even in e-commerce, education and transport.
“COVID-19 and the ensuing response from the scientific community have magnified the importance of deep science and technology in addressing challenges that confront humanity,” Lim said.
One noteworthy example is SGInnovate-backed biotech company Lucence—a pioneer in early cancer detection. When the pandemic struck, Lucence quickly shifted its focus to developing a new medium for the long-term preservation of viral genetic material in test samples at room temperature. Aside from allowing safer and more accessible testing, Lucence’s medium for nasopharyngeal swab samples led to a 36 percent higher SARS-CoV-2 detection rate compared to the standard.
Another Singapore-based startup, Accredify, worked with SGInnovate to launch the Digital Health Passport for the better management of medical records. Whether it is swab test results or vaccination history, patient data is stored in a digital wallet secured by blockchain and authenticated with a simple QR code scan. As border restrictions ease, this contactless and tamper-proof alternative to physical documents may become the ticket for a safe and smooth traveling experience in a post-COVID world.
With COVID-19 accelerating society’s digital transformation, a more integrated Deep Tech nexus on the horizon in Singapore. By standing at the interface between academia and industry, Lim believes that scientist-entrepreneurs are in the best position to turn research into social impact by embarking on their own Deep Tech journeys. “Be brave and unafraid to take risks,” he concluded. “This means always keeping an open mind to try new things; always learning and upskilling; as well as being flexible and adaptable when challenges come your way.”
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