Asia has experienced rapid growth in the biomedical sciences and pharmaceutical fields. Within the last decade, Singapore has established itself as a global scientific powerhouse, attracting leading companies. The city-state has built up a reputation for biomedical sciences innovation in addition to being a global financial and business hub.
Singapore’s biomedical sciences industry contributes 4.1% to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), manufactures about US$14 billion worth of patented pharmaceutical products and medical devices for global markets, and employs more than 16,000 people. More than 50 companies conduct R&D in Singapore, including drug discovery and development, translational and clinical research, and medical technology innovation. In 2008 alone, R&D expenditure in biomedical sciences exceeded US$715 million.
Partnering companies to accelerate innovation
Many companies are leveraging on Singapore’s integrated network of 30 research institutes, academic medical centers, medical institutes, and hospitals to carry out biomedical sciences research, gaining access to multidisciplinary capabilities. For example, AstraZeneca and Bayer Schering Pharma are partnering with National Cancer Centre Singapore, National University Hospital, and National University of Singapore Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine to carry out translational and clinical research of cancer drugs. Innovative early-phase clinical research is carried out to validate promising drug candidates and better understand the biology of diseases in ethnic Asians.
Most recently, in January 2010, Roche announced a US$95 million translational medical research hub in Singapore, which will undertake a strategic alliance with Singapore’s research and medical institutes to expand its knowledge of disease biology and develop new personalized treatments.
Developing world class research centers
The Biopolis is an R&D center—located adjacent to the academic medical center that comprises the National University Health System—that places the research operations of global companies in close proximity to publicly-funded research institutes facilitating cross-disciplinary, public-private collaborations. This proximity provides companies easy access to Singapore’s multidisciplinary capabilities in basic, translational, and clinical research. Companies that have set up their research bases at the Biopolis include Abbott, Lilly, Merck & Co., Novartis and Takeda.
Singapore has embarked on an ambitious program to nurture carefully selected Research Centers of Excellence (RCEs), world-class investigator-led research centers with a global impact, focusing on areas aligned with the long-term strategic interests of Singapore. It will serve to attract top academic research talent and retain them in Singapore. Each center is generously funded by the National Research Foundation of Singapore and will receive US$107 million each over five years. The five approved RCEs to date address the areas of cancer, quantum technology, earth sciences, mechanobiology, and environmental life sciences engineering.
Home for global talent
Singapore recognizes that talent is key to the growth of its biomedical sciences industry. More than 4,300 scientists and researchers make up the cosmopolitan scientific community in Singapore. Singapore has attracted some of the world’s top scientific talent to lead the research institutes, consortia, and laboratories here, including:
• Axel Ullrich, principal investigator, Singapore Oncogenome Project, and director of molecular biology, Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, Germany
• Edison Liu, executive director, Genome Institute of Singapore. (Former director of clinical sciences, National Cancer Institute, US)
• Edward Holmes, executive deputy chairman, Biomedical Research Council and chairman, National Medical Research Council (Former vice chancellor, University of California, San Diego)
• Judith Swain, executive director, Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences. (Formerly from the University of California)
• Neal Copeland, executive director and principal investigator, Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology. (Formerly from National Cancer Institute, US)
• Nancy Jenkins, deputy director and principal investigator, Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology. (Formerly from National Cancer Institute, US).
• Philippe Kourilsky, chairman and principal investigator, Singapore Immunology Network. (Formerly from Pasteur Institute, France)
• Sir George Radda, chairman, Biomedical Research Council. (Former chief executive, Medical Research Council, UK)
• Sydney Brenner, Nobel Laureate, Scientific Advisor to A*STAR Chairman, and Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Crick-Jacobs Center, Salk Institute of Biological Studies, US
• Yoshiaki Ito, principal investigator, Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology. (Formerly from the University of Kyoto, Japan)
In addition, Singapore has launched the Singapore Translational Research (STaR) Investigator Award in 2008 to build up capabilities in translational and clinical research. This award is designed to recruit and nurture world-class clinician scientists to undertake cutting edge translational and clinical research in Singapore. Each award funds the start-up cost and operating expenses of the research project as well as the salary of the researcher for three to five years. Leading clinician-scientists who have received the STaR Award include Daniel Tenen (formerly from Harvard Medical School), David Virshup (formerly from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine), and Phillip Koeffler (formerly from UCLA).
Separately, Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR) introduced the A*STAR Investigatorship (A*I), a research award, designed to attract the most promising young researchers from around the world to conduct independent research at A*STAR in biomedical sciences, physical sciences, and engineering research. Winners of the award become principal investigators who lead their own teams and receive generous funding. Past award recipients for biomedical sciences include Dr. Bruno Reversade, who is now a principal investigator at the Human Embryology Lab of A*STAR’s Institute of Medical Biology and Dr. Prabha Sampath, a principal investigator at the Post-Transcriptional Regulation in Stem Cell Lab of A*STAR’s Institute of Medical Biology.
Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) has also launched a globally competitive program—the NRF Research Fellows award—to attract young researchers to conduct independent research in Singapore. Successful research fellows will be given full independence and freedom to pursue research direction, supported by a generous research grant over three years. This grant will cover the cost of setting up a research team, additional research facilities and research-relevant travel expenses.
Similarly, Singapore’s National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) are transforming themselves into research universities and are actively courting talented scientists into their fray. Examples include Prof. Stephen Cohen of NUS, a recent inductee into the prestigious Royal Society, who was formerly from Germany’s Max Planck Institute and NTU’s Prof. Eugene Makeyev, a Russian scientist who was a recent recipient of Singapore’s highly-competitive National Research Fellows award.
Opportunities for global talent
All these developments spell opportunities for biomedical sciences talent to seize. Hot jobs in Singapore include: bioinformaticists, biologists, geneticists, immunologists, medicinal chemists , pharmacologists, and postdoctoral research fellows.
Singapore has topped many international rankings, including the recent Mercer Quality of Living global city rankings 2009 which placed Singapore best in Asia for quality of living, and best in the world for city infrastructure. The result of this is that one in four people working and living in Singapore is a non-resident.
Research talent who enjoy living and working in a cosmopolitan and fast-moving environment would find Singapore an ideal location to realize their potential.
About the Author
Ng Siew Kiang is the Executive Director of Contact Singapore, a global alliance of the Singapore Economic Development Board and the Ministry of Manpower. Contact Singapore aims to attract global talent to work, invest, and live in Singapore.