This week at the BIO 2005 Conference in Philadelphia, Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology, and Research announced that it has begun Phase II of its plan to expand the Biopolis, a massive life-sciences park designed to encourage scientific collaboration. The facilities include services and equipment for DNA sequencing, proteomics, flow cytometry, and microarrays, among others. Yeoh Keat Chuan, deputy director of the Biomedical Sciences Group of the Singapore Economic Development Board, talked with BioCommerce Week at the BIO Conference about the Biopolis and why Singapore may be an attractive market for life-science investment.
When was the Biopolis created and when did Singapore decide to make a significant investment in its life sciences industry?
The focused effort in biomedical sciences really began in the year 2000, and the Biopolis was proposed in April 2000. Phase I was completed in October '03. Then at the end of last year we essentially achieved 90-percent occupancy.
How big is the facility right now?
Two million square feet. It holds about 2,000 scientists.
How do you go about recruiting Western companies and researchers to come to Singapore? What are some of the selling points?
Many of the companies are familiar with Singapore. They have invested in manufacturing operations here. But we also meet up with a number of companies that are at an earlier stage — the biotech players — and I think the selling points are: One, the Biopolis provides a starting point and it makes cooperation between the public and private sector research in the biomedical space very easy. It's start-up conducive.
Two, I think we are a nucleus of scientific talent and we are attracting scientists from all over the world to come and work in Singapore. For example, Novartis has 70 people here from 16 countries all over the world. That provides a diversity, and in terms of research you need a diversity of views.
Third, is intellectual property protection. It is important to know that if you're going to do cutting-edge research, the fruits of your labor will be protected.
Were intellectual property laws strengthened specifically to encourage life science research or was this a general characteristic of doing business in Singapore before then?
It's a characteristic of Singapore. I think that's one of the reasons many companies choose to have their manufacturing facilities here. It's definitely one of Singapore's strengths.
With China and India emerging as low-cost options for setting up business in the region, what do you do compete against them? What do you emphasize beyond IP protection?
We think of Singapore as a low-cost location to do R&D, or even a low-cost location to do manufacturing. But most of the advantages you have in Singapore also make it a cost-competitive location. We talked about the high-tech environment, we talked about the infrastructure. Any time you can compress the time of manufacturing, you have an advantage. The Biopolis is an environment in which the entry barriers in a sense are lower and that's an advantage.
What's next for the Biopolis? What's the next phase of development?
The next phase expands the existing space of the Biopolis by 20 percent, or 400,000 square feet. And it will be all private sector.
Is there anything Singapore could be doing better to bring in life science investment?
Well, I think for Singapore the question has always been about its small domestic market. If we could expand our domestic market there would be an advantage. So, we can expand those boundaries economically through free-trade agreements with key economies all over the world. For example, we were the first country to sign a free-trade agreement with Japan.