The MedTech scene in Singapore
Information & Communications Technology and Media | 16 Jul 2020
In our previous story, we discussed the use of MedTech in the battle against COVID-19. We move closer home in part 2 of our 3-series articles to look at the MedTech scene in Singapore.
According to a McKinsey report, Asia-Pacific’s MedTech market is poised to grow to about US$133 billion in 2020, from US$88 billion in 2015, surpassing the European Union as the second-largest market globally.
In Singapore, the MedTech ecosystem is also growing. The MedTech sector contributed S$13.3 billion to Singapore’s economy in 2018, from S$3.1 billion in 2008. Enterprise Singapore (ESG) reported a growth in home-grown MedTech companies, increasing from 100 in 2014 to more than 250 in 2018. With its push for a Smart Nation, Singapore is leading the region in MedTech research and development. According to the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), Singapore is home to over 60 multinational MedTech companies operating as regional headquarters, manufacturing, or research and development.
In this article, we look at key factors which might have contributed to the MedTech scene in Singapore, according to SGInnovation.
Key drivers of Singapore’s MedTech industry’s growth
Typically, the MedTech industry has high barriers of entry and longer incubation phases. In Singapore, the adoption barriers are lower as there are a lot of IT, electronics, and software companies. Mr Johnny Teo, director for healthcare and biomedical at ESG says, “These (infrastructure) provide early-stage incubation support and investments in MedTech start-ups and enables them to fast-track the development and commercialisation of technologies”.
In addition, Abel Ang, executive director and group CEO of Advanced MedTech Group noted that infrastructure in other areas such as Singapore’s “status as a global financial capital, the ease of doing business, and its growing prowess as a technology hub, especially in artificial intelligence, are big pluses”.
According to Mr Johnny Teo, the MedTech sector in Singapore is growing because companies are getting more support from investors and the public healthcare clusters. Government funding, academic expertise, a robust start-up ecosystem, and cooperation by legacy institutions all help to drive this growth.
For instance, the Diagnostics Development Hub, formed in 2014 under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*Star) enterprise arm, has been speeding up the commercialisation of diagnostic technologies. Major healthcare clusters have teams to accelerate clinical innovations.
In 2019, the National Research Foundation launched Singapore Health Technologies Consortium (HealthTEC) to bridge the gap between R&D and application, by connecting academics and industry partners, and provide its members with seed funding for collaboration projects.
They serve as platforms for local MedTech companies to test their products in a hospital setting, and better position the products for downstream commercialisation and adoption. In 2018, the public healthcare clusters supported more than 100 MedTech projects through clinical advisory, co-development, and test-bedding. For example, the National University Health System’s Centre for Innovation in Healthcare allows start-ups and SMEs to test their products in live ward settings before their products roll out. It also provides services such as health technology assessment, business evaluation and access to networks and capital.
Singapore is seeing more investor willingness to support early-stage start-ups in the industry, including overseas companies looking to expand to Asia. In 2018, Seeds Capital, the investment arm of ESG, co-invested more than $90 million in over 20 MedTech start-ups. In April 2019, SGInnovate named five new co-investors to focus on early-stage Deep Tech start-ups in various fields, including MedTech.
MedTech companies are realising that their solutions must be developed based on what healthcare professionals and patients need. “If there is one thing the industry has learned from pilot tests in 2019, such as the Ministry of Health Office for Healthcare Transformation (MOHT)’s tele-health pilot on hypertension management at Ang Mo Kio Polyclinic, it’s that user-centric design is key to adoption”, says Ms Ng Ling Ling. Ms Ng, Director (Community Engagement) & Head (Future Primary Care), MOHT says “The tech serves the patient and healthcare team, not the other way around”. For example, “understanding the elderly’s concerns on use of smartphones, troubleshooting, low-cost access and data plans are all important practical considerations for smartphone- and app-based healthcare digitalisation”, adds Ms Ng.
Prof Gerald Koh, Clinical Director, Future Primary Care, MOHT recommends building an interdisciplinary team. The team will focus on the healthcare staff and patients to aid implementation, and to ease the learning curve to engender a change in habits or in institutional systems.
Increased scale of user-friendly solutions and standard-issue devices
“Wellness solutions are reaching scale in Singapore”, says Prof Robert Morris, Chief Technology Strategist, MOHT. This is due to the simplicity of the solutions and ease of use of standard-issue devices like smartphones and smartwatches. For instance, Fitbits count the number of steps taken. The user only needs to wear them. They can also be equipped with sensors that detect other factors, such as heart rate, or to measure the intensity of the user’s activity.
MedTech companies are increasingly leveraging standard wearable devices to provide medical information and encourage health monitoring. This is especially important where Singapore is estimated to have 900,000 elderly citizens by 2030. A simple solution is Health Beacon, a connected device for managing medication.
The device acts as a ‘smart sharps bin’ where patients who self-inject medicines can toss in instruments like hypodermic needles. The medication schedule is digitally programmed into the bin, which reminds the patient through SMS and displays a Personal Adherence Score. Health Beacon is based in Ireland but is expanding to Asia following an investment by SGInnovate in 2019.
While in the early stages, there is already an increase in the development and adoption of home-monitoring solutions. Patients can track their blood sugar, weight, and blood pressure without visiting a clinic or take a lab test. Web Biotech’s Spyder Personal is a wearable device that continuously monitors the heart’s electrical activity to detect infrequent abnormal heart rhythms. The device then sends the data to the user’s mobile phone, which can be forwarded to a medical worker.
As MedTech becomes increasingly reliant on data, AI has become crucial to the industry, according to Deloitte. In fact, global investment in healthcare AI companies amounted to almost US$1.6 billion in Q3 2019 alone.
AI can be used for descriptive and predictive analytics, chatbots for wellness coaching, and imaging analysis. Singapore-based KroniKare enables almost-instant, non-invasive assessment of chronic wounds with the use of an AI-enabled scanning device. The device’s AI system measures the wound and evaluates it against 15 years of chronic wound data. A report is then generated, which healthcare practitioners can use to help determine suitable treatments.
Again, Singapore’s existing AI expertise and infrastructure is advantageous for MedTech companies. (Read more about AI in Singapore.)
Singapore on the global deeptech radar because of COVID-19
At the time of writing, the world is still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. Unsurprisingly, there has been an uptick in MedTech uses and Singapore is at the forefront in fighting COVID-19. We look at some examples.
Local MedTech firm MiRXES, has been mass-producing diagnostic test kits, developed in just three weeks by A*Star and Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH). The kits have 100 per cent clinical sensitivity (able to detect all the positive samples tested at TTSH so far) and yields results in about 90 minutes, a gold standard among tests. The firm can produce 100,000 tests per week and is scaling up to exceed 300,000 tests a week. The tests go to more than 10 nations, and to 80 per cent of hospitals in Singapore.
Other Singapore firms have stepped up to develop various versions of test kits for COVID-19. They include Veredus Labs, Biolidics, Acumen Research Laboratories, as well as a team of researchers at Duke-NUS Medical School. Chief executive and executive director of Heritas Capital Management, which invests in DeepTech ventures, Chik Wai Chiew, said this shows that Singapore’s infrastructure was already in place to be able to scale DeepTech solutions quickly. He observed that labs had been quickly built, and the equipment to rapidly prototype, manufacture and scale solutions were already in hand. The ecosystems were also mature enough to bring together private and public sectors to collaborate to solve real-world problems.
Singapore-based AI start-up 6Estates, a joint research centre of the National University of Singapore and Tsinghua University of China, came up with an AI-powered assistive CT-scan diagnosis platform. A team led by alumni at Tsinghua University provided medical knowledge and key domain expertise. They helped 6Estates adapt its deep-learning and neural network models in under two months to train its AI-assistive platform to recognise signs of the viral infection in patients’ lungs. The leap offered by 6Estates’ AI platform is that it can read and process one scan comprising of 200 images, in 10 seconds. This is 30 times faster than an experienced radiologist and platform has an average accuracy rate of 84.7 per cent.
Industry players note that regulatory processes that used to take years are being accelerated, and agencies are more accepting of new developments. Singapore-based Esco Aster is co-developing a chimeric vaccine for the novel coronavirus with other firms in Singapore. The US. Chief executive Lin Xiang Liang said that with the support of various governments, he hopes to accelerate its development, which would otherwise run into years. The contract development and manufacturing organisation (CDMO) arm of life-science company Esco Group is also closely working with partners to provide simple and effective test kits for home-use. Within a month, the company has developed and built test booths, mobile diagnostic labs, and related containment devices such as makeshift isolation rooms for COVID-19.
Singapore-founded digital therapeutics start-up Biofourmis customised its Biovitals Sentinel platform to detect symptoms of deterioration in Covid-19 patients in just 10 days. Patients only need to wear a biosensor on their arms. The sensor will identify physiological changes that could point to an infection, enabling medical professionals to step in earlier with treatment. The start-up rolled this out across the United States, Australia, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom in less than three weeks.
COVID-19 is testing healthcare and economic systems globally. In Singapore, it has also pushed the nation’s MedTech companies into the limelight, demonstrating the wisdom of a strong ecosystem to support DeepTech companies, including those in MedTech.