In 2000, Singapore welcomed its first ever biotechnology company. By 2019, it was home to 350, with hundreds more expected to take root and thrive over the next several years. Today, the Singapore biotech industry is now also a vital link in the global pharmaceutical supply chain, with some of the world’s most valuable drugs being manufactured in the country.

As rapid as the industry’s ascent seems, its seemingly meteoric rise did not begin in the year 2000. Rather, it began much earlier in the 1980s, shortly after Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew had a fateful exchange with South African biologist Dr. Sydney Brenner in 1983 that convinced him of the value of biotechnology. The current spate of successes in Singapore’s biotech industry is thanks to four decades of consistent public policy, which have created the infrastructure needed for biotechnology ventures to thrive.

The fact is, biotechnology is an extremely difficult business for small organisations or even whole countries to get into, especially given the size and capabilities of many of the world’s leading players. Tackling the countless technical and market challenges of biotechnology takes decades and considerable advances in human development, as well as support from both the public and private spheres. 

Biotechnology is another industry in which Singapore has once again proven its exceptional collective will. The country is now home to a thriving biotech ecosystem with an ever-expanding global footprint. Today, the country continues to lead its neighbours in shifting the epicentre of biotechnology from North America and Europe to Asia. Here are some major trends that characterise Singapore’s biotech sector today:

An Expanding Biotech Support Industry

Singapore’s biotechnology sector is made up of far more than just R&D groups and manufacturers. It also includes an extremely diverse set of support businesses that offer biotech companies everything from biosafety level 2 laboratory rentals to specialised legal support. The success and growth of locally based biotech companies are creating an explosion of support ventures that is, in turn, encouraging even more biotech firms to do business in Singapore.

A Growing Venture Capital Scene

The proven success of Singapore’s biotech ecosystem is emboldening venture capitalists to invest more in local biotech enterprises, as they are now generally seen as a much lower risk compared to similar operations in other Asian biotech hubs. In addition, the strong overall performance of Singapore’s economy continues to attract more venture capital to the country, further increasing the ability of locallybased biotechs to raise funding.

A Greater Willingness to Take Entrepreneurial Risk

In recent years, a markedly increased appetite for investment risk has benefitted the biotech sector. Biotech startups are typically considered to be very high-risk ventures, as it often takes a decade or more for a biotechnology product to progress from conceptualisation to market. This means that investors have to be prepared to lose money for however long it takes to produce patents or market-ready products. The healthier risk appetite among Singapore-based investors has made funding for biotechs more readily available, giving startups better chances at achieving profitability.

Collective Optimism on Biotech’s Potential

Investors’ increased risk appetite is part of a greater phenomenon of general optimism surrounding Singaporean biotech. The remarkable successes achieved by the industry are giving both investors and public policymakers confidence in expanding support for biotechnology companies. This has also spread to the general population, as many more Singaporeans consider either investing in biotech or building careers in the industry, further sustaining its growth. 

Maturation of Early Startups

Many of the startups that began in the mid-2010s are just starting their clinical trials or are actively commercialising their innovations, representing a shift in the overall state of the Singaporean biotech industry. This has already led to a rise in demand for professionals with skill sets more suited for established businesses rather than for startups. Indeed, there is now a widening talent gap for junior, management, and C-suite roles, particularly for companies now entering clinical trials. Once more biotechs start commercialising their research, the industry is also likely to also see a growth in demand for specialised legal services.

The Singaporean biotech industry is built on very strong foundations. Decades of preparation by policymakers, investors, and local biotech evangelists have already borne fruit, and the yields are increasing year over year. While not free of any serious threats or challenges, the biotech industry is set to further dominate the growing Asian market in the coming decade, with Singaporean-made biotech products likely to provide stiff competition for those made by dominant Western companies.

 All the same, as early as now, it’s clear that Singapore’s biotech stakeholders have set their sights further than Asia. Indeed, with enough time, consistency, and luck, Singapore’s biotechnology firms may one day compete neck and neck with Western biotech hubs like Silicon Valley by creating inimitable innovations that capture a global market.