Episode 11

Why Singapore is Asia’s leading med tech hub

Artificial intelligence, 3D printing, driverless transportation – the innovation wheel has never spun as fast as today.

Despite the much-cited Theranos effect – coined by Bloomberg to describe the painful aftermath of Elisabeth Holmes’ history-making blood analysis scam – healthcare continues to be especially high on the agenda.

Industry giants like Google and Intel, along with a vast array of start-ups, have fixed their gaze on the heavily regulated industry – not only because the Theranos bust should have scared away “future peddlers of snake oil,” as Dylan Morris of Charles River Ventures puts it, but because demand for smart, streamlined health services has never been as strong as it is today.

The result is a healthy, albeit toned back innovation landscape that is increasingly segregating into a variety of sub-categories ranging from health tech (think wearables) and telemedicine (think online/ AI-driven consultation) through to “classic” biotechnology.

While industry is yet to agree on a common, buzzword-proof definition for each subset, there is growing agreement that Asia is en route to becoming the sector’s most promising growth market – both from an investment and from an innovation perspective.

Asian health tech market on track to overtake Europe

According to McKinsey, Asia will overtake Europe as the second-largest regional health tech market by 2023*, trailing only the US. During that period, it will also become the major growth engine among global med tech markets, contributing 35 per cent of total incremental growth, the consultancy explained in a recent report.

“The region is increasingly recognised as a major source of product technology innovation as well as for its innovative business models and unique healthcare eco-system.”

“There are several factors which propel healthcare in Asia,” the Entrepreneur’s Asia Pacific edition elaborated in April, pointing out that investor confidence is slowly recovering from the headline-making Theranos shock.

“With the proliferation of technology, the populace in Asian countries are ready for the disruptions brought about by health tech. Sensing this, governments in Asia are actively promoting [it] as the next engine of growth.”

Singapore poised to take the lead

The Singaporean government is especially proactive in that regard, knowing that the region’s inherent complexity will require both the centralisation of key resources – especially financing – as well as an agile execution platform designed to navigate regulatory roadblocks and extended research intervals.

It is also acutely aware that successful investments will not only yield ROI, as Galen Growth Asia (GGA) recently pointed out, but also create substantial societal benefit – unlike investments in fintech or e-commerce.

Testament to the government’s ongoing commitment to healthcare innovation is the sector’s key role in the 2019 budget. “Reflecting its ecosystem position, the Singapore government regards health tech as a priority for the transformation of the nation’s healthcare and to position it as an innovation leader in the region,” GGA found. “Singapore’s Budget 2019 places a very welcome spotlight on healthcare as a major pillar of society.”

Plugging into a world-class eco-system

With a population of just shy of six million, Singapore’s domestic market may market be small. But with a budget firmly geared towards leading the way in healthcare innovation and well-established finance and logistics sectors, the opportunities seem endless, says Dr Sebastian Bhakdi, Founder & CEO of cancer detection specialist, X-ZELL, which recently entered into a high-profile partnership with Singapore’s Diagnostics Development Hub. 

“Singapore is not only a highly efficient logistics hub – and with it the perfect springboard to patients across all of Asia – but also a premium manufacturing location with strong design and engineering capabilities, which is crucial for businesses like X-ZELL,” he explains, also pointing to the availability of highly skilled IT and software talent.

“For a young business like X-ZELL, it’s easy to plug into Singapore’s vast network of innovation, talent and ideas and make real progress, fast.” 

He adds, “Despite a general penchant for innovation, especially with view to digitisation, many a Southeast Asian nation is still grappling with the notion of healthcare innovation.

“Singapore, meanwhile, is on the way to becoming a global hub for both research and product development. Total investment in the sector is already on track to reach record levels in 2019, and with the right framework behind it, the sky is the limit.”

*Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) is confident that Asia will overtake Europe as early as 2020.

Next-generation cytology

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