JN Medsys chief executive Johnson Ng with the Clarity digital PCR system.

Johnson Chen, chief executive and co-founder of Clearbridge BioMedics, holding up a diagnostic kit of the Clear Cell System, which uses blood to detect cancer cells. PHOTO: ST

Investors with experience, know-how and a strong network help medtech start-ups negotiate the complex and heavily regulated route from idea to actualisation.

By Arti Mulchand
Jan 26, 2015

Venture capital and incubation firm Clearbridge BSA’s decision to back Singapore bioengineer Lim Chwee Teck’s invention of a biochip that made screening for cancer with a blood test possible gives true meaning to the term “accelerator”.

In just 12 months – half the amount of time it would ordinarily take – a viable version of the biochip – was ready to be tested, remembers Mr Johnson Chen, managing partner of the Spring Singapore-supported accelerator.

Johnson Chen, Managing Director, Clearbridge BioMedics Pte Ltd.

Clearbridge quickly mobilised its network of clinicians and key opinion leaders to test this “liquid biopsy” out. Working optimally, the biochip would separate “circulating cancer cells” from the other blood components so they could then be analysed.

It didn’t take long for the results to come in: improvements needed to be made to enable the biochip to test more blood, and faster.

“We could get back to the drawing board and come up with the second generation product that ticked all the boxes for clinicians more quickly,” says Mr Chen, 42.

The second-generation product is now a CE-marked – meaning that it has passed Europe’s regulatory requirements for a research product – medical device with various collaborations and clinical validation trials ongoing.

It is testimony to how having the right hand to hold in the early days can make a critical difference, especially if it is someone with the right experience, expertise and networks, explains Mr Chen.

In this case, testing yielded valuable insights into whether the biochip would work.

“If a start-up is floundering and we can help set it back on track, we do that. If not, and the company looks like it might fail, it is better to fail fast. The founding team can then move on to their next idea or venture quickly, benefiting from their experience,” he shares, candidly.

This kind of capital injection is what the industry calls “smart money”, because it helps to reduce risk, and shorten the time to market, explains Mr Johnny Teo, General Manager, SPRING SEEDS Capital, the investment arm of SPRING Singapore which co-invests in commercially viable local start-ups.

“Given the complexities of the Medtech industry, money alone is insufficient. Start-ups need to navigate the regulatory process, appreciate the manufacturing know-how, build overseas networks and distribution channels, and more. By tapping on the accelerator’s capabilities and networks, start-ups can beat the learning curve faster and grow towards success,” Mr Teo adds

In the case of Dr Johnson Ng’s idea for the Clarity Digital PCR System, a non-invasive diagnostic tool that detects rare strains of DNA, there were knowledge gaps to plug.

JN Medsys chief executive Johnson Ng with the Clarity digital PCR system.
JN Medsys chief executive Johnson Ng with the Clarity digital PCR system.

Dr Ng, 37, was able to get SPRING Singapore’s Technology Enterprise Commercialization Scheme (TECS) Proof-of-Concept grant, and then convince Dr Kuok Meng Han, to come on board as a corporate investor of his bioinstrumentation company JN Medsys. Dr Kuok is the Executive Director of CamTech, a firm that assists promising start-ups in the scientific fields.

Through his network, Mr Kuok helped open doors at A*STAR for Dr Ng’s early developmental work, and also made his know-how available to the young inventor.

“I learned things like fund-raising, which I never knew how to do before,” Dr Ng says, adding that the product, which has yet to hit the market, has seen interest from the US, Europe and Asia, notably China, Japan, and Korea.

Ultimately, bringing on the right kind of money means a start-up with a good idea gets a better shot at success, says Mr Chen: “Given the long gestation period and all the hurdles that you have to deal with, and the amount of time and money it all takes, you cannot afford to fail… and having the right help, networks and contacts is critical.”

Brought to you by SPRING Singapore