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Building breakthroughs beyond the lab

10 Dec 2021

From music streaming technology to COVID-19 tests, A*STAR Assistant Chief Executive (Enterprise) Sze Wee Tan details how the agency is bringing their innovations out of the lab and into the real world.

Even as a newly independent country with scarce natural resources, Singapore knew that the key to its survival lay in the one thing that could help the country overcome its natural limits: science and technology.

Singapore’s journey of building a scientific ecosystem started in 1991, with the establishment of the National Science and Technology Board (NSTB) that would later be restructured into the A*STAR that we know today.

In the 30 years since, A*STAR’s research and development (R&D) efforts have paid off, enabling the country to address emerging challenges and seed capabilities in critical areas. But while R&D is an unquestionably valuable resource, capturing value through commercializing those research efforts is equally important.

“In today’s hypercompetitive world and challenging global trade environment, innovation is a key driver for Singapore’s long-term economic growth,” said Sze Wee Tan, Assistant Chief Executive of A*STAR’s Enterprise division, which was established to further strengthen the agency’s economic and societal impact.

A*STAR’s commercialization initiatives have since resulted in a steady stream of landmark patents and successful collaborations, all of which have set Singapore on the path towards being an innovation-driven, knowledge-based economy, rich in job and research opportunities alike.

Delivering impact through science

Complementing their diverse research arms, A*STAR’s landmark patents traverse a wide variety of domains, including biomedical sciences, manufacturing, materials engineering and more.

One notable patent challenging the prevailing paradigm of cancer treatment comes from the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), where researchers developed antibodies that could suppress cancer growth by also targeting proteins within cancer cells and not just those on the cancer cell surface.

Another patent arose from a milestone study by researchers at the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS) along with researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS), Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital; and international collaborators from Canada, New Zealand and the UK. This effort yielded the first universal screening tool for gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM).

By screening all expectant mothers in the Growing Up in Singapore Towards healthy Outcomes (GUSTO) birth cohort study for GDM, the study revealed that the current practice of screening only people with inherent high-risk factors missed nearly half of the affected individuals. In 2015, these findings were delivered to the Ministry of Health and put into active clinical practice.

“The resulting Appropriate Care Guide included new recommendations for screening and diagnosing GDM and emphasized the importance of long-term care for women with prior GDM,” said Tan.

A*STAR has also made waves beyond the medical field. Although music streaming services like Spotify feel like a natural part of modern life, things weren’t always so simple. Compressing music files for easy streaming often meant compromising audio quality. In 2010, the Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R) took a big step forward when they produced the world’s first patented adaptive audio streaming technology. Their invention not only compressed music files with little distortion or fidelity loss, but also enabled streaming at different qualities depending on the device type or available bandwidth.

In the realm of consumer electronics, the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech)’s Joint Competency Centre, together with technology conglomerate Philips, successfully industrialized a chemical process for sol-gel coating, wherein organic and inorganic materials are fused to coat material and improve its performance and resilience. The team eventually applied the sol-gel coating on an award-winning commercial iron, endowing it with the ability to withstand heat, glide smoothly and last longer.

Beyond the steady stream of patents from A*STAR research institutes, Tan also counts the collaborations with A*STAR spinoff company MiRXES and the Centre of Excellence in Advanced Packaging between Applied Materials (AMAT) and the Institute of Microelectronics (IME) as stellar examples of successful R&D commercialization. “While strong patents can arise from the focused efforts of individual researchers, collaborations can generate a patent portfolio that enables platform or system applications,” Tan explained.

MiRXES is a shining example of collaborative efforts bearing fruit. It traces its origins from A*STAR’s Bioprocessing Technology Institute (BTI), where cofounder and CEO Lihan Zhou and his colleagues demonstrated that their technology could detect blood-based microRNA biomarkers with unprecedented sensitivity. By May 2019, the company had launched GASTROClear, the world’s first approved molecular blood test for gastric cancer screening.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, MiRXES’ capabilities and partnership with A*STAR shone through. After researchers from the Bioinformatics Institute (BII), Diagnostics Development Hub (DxD Hub) and Tan Tock Seng Hospital successfully developed and validated the Fortitude COVID-19 test kit, MiRXES scaled up the kit’s production—allowing its benefits to be reaped by millions worldwide.

A*STAR also assists other companies in translating technology into products. For example, SIMTech’s Innovation Factory provides support for Singapore SMEs from ideation to the design and engineering stage, while A*STAR’s open innovation platform A*StartCentral (A*SC) fosters an ecosystem that encourages venture creation.

Planning for the future

Notwithstanding its track record over the past 30 years, A*STAR forges ahead in its mission to continue generating economic and societal impact for Singapore and the world. Guiding the agency’s efforts is the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 (RIE2025) plan, which sets the blueprint for the Republic’s science and technology efforts.

“With the RIE2025 plan focusing on creating greater value from RIE investments, A*STAR will dedicate its efforts to expediting the translation of R&D to market,” Tan said, adding that such efforts require the agency to bridge the gap between industry collaborators and Singapore’s research community.

According to Tan, A*STAR will also focus on further developing private-public partnership platforms, such as the DxD Hub and the Experimental Drug Development Centre (EDDC), which connect researchers and companies to enable rapid production of diagnostic tests and treatments. Recognizing that Singapore’s most critical resource remains its people, A*STAR intends to continue its talent development strategy to build a strong core of local scientific talent complemented by international researchers.

Since the genesis of its R&D journey decades ago, Singapore has firmly established a vibrant research and innovation ecosystem. Through the Enterprise division, Tan is confident in A*STAR’s ability to build upon those successes and deliver even more value through science and technology.

“My vision is that A*STAR will continue to be at the forefront, leading efforts to enrich Singapore’s research and innovation ecosystem,” he shared. “We will continue to build areas of excellence in research while delivering impactful technology for commercialization to meet industry needs and national challenges.”

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This article was made for A*STAR Research by Wildtype Media Group