Features

In brief

How A*STAR’s strategic innovation engine drives partnerships within and beyond borders

© A*STAR Research

Connecting the dots

8 Mar 2024

By contributing deep insights to Singapore’s innovation ecosystem, A*STAR initiatives are helping to build strategic relationships with international partners and bridge the gaps in local capabilities.

Every day, cutting-edge discoveries make headlines: new drugs for deadly diseases, new alternatives to climate-changing fuels, new systems for smarter machines. Much of what was once science fiction is closer to reality than we might expect.

However, it’s no simple process to turn these ideas into real-world solutions. “No matter how capable an individual, company or country may be, one rarely has all they need to productise research and development (R&D),” said Yee Chia Yeo, A*STAR Innovation and Enterprise (I&E) Assistant Chief Executive. “Therefore, when they find partners with complementary strengths, collaborations make sense to speed up and bring value to innovation.”

Public agencies such as A*STAR act as innovation engines by locating and establishing relationships with such partners across diverse institutions and borders. These connections not only provide Singapore’s researchers with problem statements, market guidance and commercial needs, but fill the gaps required to launch their proposed solutions beyond the laboratory.

“Our R&D teams solve high-value problems, making significant, scalable contributions to their fields,” said Yeo. “In turn, our local and international partners help bring those solutions to market for greater societal impact.”

To foster these two-way connections, A*STAR supports various initiatives based on its deep insights on the gaps in Singapore’s innovation ecosystem. The agency helps drive the exchange of expertise and resources that both accelerate local innovation and propel it beyond Singapore’s shores.

Landing offshore

One of A*STAR’s significant border-crossing platforms is the A*STAR Partners’ Centre (A*PC), a launchpad for Singaporean tech startups to enter, expand and productise R&D within China’s markets. Launched in late 2020 at the Singapore-Jiangsu Cooperation Council, A*PC is a strategic partnership between A*STAR, the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) Administrative Committee, the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) and Enterprise Singapore (ESG).

“A*PC acts as a platform to encourage interaction between Singapore and China’s innovation communities,” said Chuan Seng Tan, A*PC Director. “As of December 2023, A*PC has assisted 37 Singaporean companies to enter China through SIP, of which 30 are A*STAR-SIP Technology Support Grant awardees.”

Beyond funding, A*PC’s assistance also includes expertise and infrastructural support for startups in the biomedical sciences, advanced remanufacturing, green energy and new materials. Its 3,500 m2 physical campus in Suzhou not only serves as a networking hub for ecosystem partners, but provides centralised research facilities for rapid product testing and customisation, as well as exhibition spaces, offices and other shared services.

“Member companies have accumulated a total of 147 intellectual property (IP) rights,” said Tan. “As of December 2023, they have also achieved a cumulative turnover of around CN¥100 million, with a cumulative actual investment of around CN¥15 million.”

A*PC member companies include machine vision specialists JM VisTec, which not only provides industrial solutions for Chinese manufacturing SMEs, but generates R&D linkages back to A*STAR’s Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC) and Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech). Others include Vivo Surgical, which recently partnered with Shanghai-based CDMO Joymed to design and productise their robotic surgery products; and AiTreat Robotics, which has industrialised its soft tissue massage technology products in SIP.

Training the innovators

A*STAR’s strategic partnerships have also introduced dynamic talent development programmes into Singapore’s innovation ecosystem. One such platform is Singapore Biodesign (SB), a national platform to nurture innovators in health and medtech (HMT) based on the internationally-validated Biodesign methodology from Stanford University in the US.

“SB began in 2010 as Singapore-Stanford Biodesign (SSB), established in a joint partnership between A*STAR, EDB and Stanford,” said Phin Peng Lee, SB Deputy Programme Director. “This was initiated when two Singaporeans, Ruey Feng Peh and Dorothea Koh, returned after their training as Stanford Biodesign Innovation Fellows. There was a desire to learn from that programme’s success so as to build up the nation’s HMT ecosystem.”

Initially closely modelled after its parent programme, SSB would constantly evolve to address HMT needs unique to Singapore and Asia. In 2018, SSB officially transitioned into SB as it took on an implementation-focused approach, and continues to receive support from Stanford as well as regional partners in China, Indonesia and South Korea.

“Today, SB provides a full suite of training offerings and innovation support for healthcare professionals and engineers at varying competency levels, with a curriculum adapted for local and regional contexts,” said Lee. “In recognition of our success and sustainability, we were also the first Biodesign programme in Asia—and one of only two worldwide—to be conferred the Global Affiliate status by the Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign.”

Apart from talent development, SB provides prototyping support for alumni to develop proofs of concept. For alumni-led projects or startups aimed at US markets, SB works with nonprofit incubator Fogarty Innovation in the BOLT Initiative: a bespoke mentoring and coaching programme that includes a three-week visit to Fogarty’s Silicon Valley campus to learn directly from successful healthtech domain experts.

SB also invests in community building to boost professional relationships and experience sharing. “Through our fellowships, workshops and classes, we have a strong, active network of over 1,500 SB alumni, who also enjoy access to the wider global Biodesign network,” said Lee.


At a glance: Biodesign highlights

Jing Ming Chew
(SSB Innovation Fellow, 2013)

Co-founded Asian epigenomics profiling company Auristone with Patrick Tan, Chief Scientific Officer of A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), and Bin Tean Teh, Deputy CEO (Research) of the National Cancer Centre Singapore. As former COO of Endofotonics, a medtech startup in the early gastric cancer space, Chew helped raise a cumulative S$20 million in funding. Auristone received SB Prototyping Grants in 2022 and 2023 and has recently closed their seed round of US$4 million.

Scott Wong
(SB Innovation Fellow, 2018)

Developed digital platforms COVID Buddy and ART Buddy, which provided low-resource testing support for over 1.5 million active users during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID Buddy received SB prototyping support and was implemented at community care facilities, while ART Buddy has been employed by the Singapore Armed Forces and Ministry of Health.


At a glance: cross-border education

To advance Singapore as a global nexus of scientific talent, the A*STAR Graduate Academy (A*GA) also offers a suite of scholarships and fellowships at undergraduate, PhD and postdoctoral levels. To date, A*GA has supported over 4,215 scholarships and awardees—almost half of them international students—to A*STAR research institutes and 90 universities across 14 countries, with top host countries being Singapore itself (3,234), the US (585) and the UK (330).


Accelerating ventures

Since the 1990s, over 200 companies have spun off A*STAR innovations, according to I&E Chief Investment Officer Kai Hoo Quek. “There’s been a ramp-up in recent years as we’ve focused on spinoffs as a key mode to commercialise IP developed within A*STAR,” said Quek. “We’ve gone from creating two spinoffs a year in the past to approximately 15 a year now.”

To boost their momentum, I&E recently embarked on Project Carrier, a deep tech venture building programme that provides pre-spinoffs with protected time and resources to incubate their startups and bring them closer to market, aiming to boost their odds of success after emerging from A*STAR. Carrier unifies previously siloed efforts in mentorship, gap funding, IP and talent matching under a structured programme that aims to be more deliberate around venture creation.

Prefer, a spinoff from the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI), is the first to take off from Carrier. With incubation support and funding, the company uses biofermentation to upcycle food waste into bioflavours; their flagship bean-free coffee product is now sold in Singaporean cafes.

To prepare deep tech startups for further shores, A*STAR’s open innovation platform A*StartCentral (A*SC) takes a further two-pronged approach of venture building and ecosystem building.

“As part of I&E’s Venture Creation and Growth division, A*SC gears its programmes to grow globally investible deep tech startups,” said Anthony Chong, A*SC Deputy Director. “We provide a continuum of support throughout the venture building life cycle, helping new innovators move from initial ideation to business plan validation, spinoff creation and market access.”

A*STAR has supported over 250 A*STAR spinoffs and external startups via A*SC and other programmes and events. One key initiative is A*SC’s Essentials Bootcamp, a 20-week venture building programme where prospective spinoff teams can identify markets for entry, and calibrate business plans that are scalable and harness global markets. “The Bootcamp brings in mentors with global experience to assist the teams, providing them a realistic lens,” said Chong.

Such mentors can make a significant impact, as in the case of Revivo Biosystems, an A*SC-incubated SIMTech spinoff specialising in 4D human skin models. “To mentor Revivo founder Massimo Alberti, we engaged Bert Grobben, P&G’s former Director of Open Innovation, who then joined Revivo as Chief Business Officer,” said Chong. “The company has since received investment from German MNC Evonik to develop human skin models as alternatives to animal testing. With clients from Europe and ASEAN, Revivo is poised for the international market.”

Chong also highlighted A*SC’s Elevate programme, which facilitates market access for deeptech startups within A*SC’s ecosystem. Elevate’s four-part structure comprises peer sharing and market awareness; insights and workshops on overseas business operations; in-market immersion to engage funders, customers and partners; and market entry strategy and decision.

In 2023, Elevate’s inaugural cohort was prepared in collaboration with A*PC, ESG, GIA Partners, Xnode, China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park Development Group and other ecosystem partners. “Our collective efforts and knowledge superseded that of any individual contributor, with insights and workshops providing considerations in IP protection, business-government interactions, international trade and hiring,” said Chong.

An ongoing member of A*SC’s support continuum is BioActivx, a spinoff of A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) geared for advanced wound care solutions. “Bioactivx had gone through our Open Mike, Essentials and Elevate programmes,” said Chong. “In November 2023, we coached them for a pitch at the 2023 Jinji Lake Innovation and Partnership Competition in Suzhou, where they received an award and investor interest.”

Taking flight: Other A*STAR-supported innovators at different globalisation stages

© A*STAR Research

Taking flight: Other A*STAR-supported innovators at different globalisation stages

Local:
• Plasma Science: Developers of air sanitisers under Trident Air in collaboration with IMRE and partners; I&E support led to their product showcasing at the 2024 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, US.

• Xinterra: High-throughput sustainable materials engineering with AI platforms developed by IMRE, National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Winners of the Vogue Singapore x BMW Innovation Prize 2023 for COzTERRA, a line of carbon dioxide-absorbing clothing textiles.

Regional:
Ampotech: AI-enabled Internet of Things (IoT) energy management solutions; a spinoff from A*STAR and the University of Illinois Research Institute, US. Raised S$1.7 million in a 2023 funding round led by Vietnam’s Earth Venture Capital; to set up first international office in 2024.

Neeuro: Non-invasive health neurotechnology with IP licensed from the Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R); now exploring markets in Vietnam, Belgium, China and Scotland.

International:
MiRXES: Developer of non-invasive, blood-based microRNA test kits for early detection of cancer and other diseases. In 2023, received the US Food and Drug Administration’s Breakthrough Device Designation for its flagship product GASTROClear; filed listing application with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange after raising US$50 million in Series D funding.

Immunoscape: Pre-clinical biotechnology company focused on the development of next-generation T cell receptor (TCR)-based cell immunotherapies. Introduced to University of Tokyo Edge Capital and Anzu Partners for initial venture capital funding; in 2022, raised US$14 million in new financing led by Anzu.

Augmentus: Intelligent, adaptive industrial robotics solutions sold worldwide. In 2023, the ARTC spinoff raised an oversubscribed Series A round led by Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm Sierra Ventures.


Nation to nation

Strategic innovation relies not only on collaboration between institutes and industries, but between nations. Under A*STAR I&E, the International Operations and Relations Office (IORO) works with the Office of Grants Administration (OGA) and other teams to help bolster R&D partnerships between Singapore and other countries.

An example of such bilateral partnerships is the ‘2+2’, wherein both countries fund four-way, public-private partnerships that provide R&D grants in thematic areas of interest. “In 2018, to deepen the nexus between public and private R&D performers in both countries, A*STAR and Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), together with Singapore’s EDB and ESG, launched the Singapore-Germany 2+2 Cooperation Framework,” said IORO representatives.

Other partnerships have been conducted with Australia via the A*STAR-CSIRO 2+2 Partnership, established in 2020 with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO); and Italy via the Italy-Singapore Executive Programme for Scientific and Technological Cooperation, established with Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MAECI).

From 2018 to 2020, A*STAR-BMBF launched three rounds of joint grant calls in three thematic areas, with nine projects awarded in total. In 2020, the first A*STAR-CSIRO joint grant call was issued in four areas, with four projects awarded; a second grant call is planned for launch in early 2024. Meanwhile, the first grant call under A*STAR-MAECI was launched in 2022, with 10 projects awarded under seven areas.


Strategic bilateral R&D partnerships: thematic areas

A*STAR-BMBF, Germany
• Advanced manufacturing
• Blockchain technology in manufacturing and supply chains
• Smart urban mobility

A*STAR-CSIRO, Australia
• Circular economy and low emission technologies
• Digital and environment
• Food and health
• Future materials in advanced manufacturing

A*STAR-MAECI, Italy
• Artificial intelligence
• Food technology
• Health
• Hydrogen research
• Photonics
• Quantum technology
• Robotics


Steering the engine

Whether between individuals or countries, collaboration is key to develop truly successful innovations that address increasingly global problems. To that end, A*STAR continues to facilitate partnerships that bring together the right people for the right purpose.

“We want to attract strong partners to Singapore. Rather than relying on serendipity, we adopt a strategic and intentional approach, especially in economically vital sectors such as healthcare and electronics,” said Yeo.

For Yeo, the value of A*STAR’s work in facilitating cross-border innovation is exemplified by the evolution of equipment manufacturer Applied Materials’ presence in Singapore. Established in 1991 as a regional manufacturing operations centre, Applied Materials South East Asia has since formed four joint R&D labs in partnership with A*STAR research institutes and NUS, with significant support from A*STAR I&E.

“Ultimately, collaborations are about leverage: they multiply force and shorten time. By uniting differentiated capabilities across domains, we achieve greater objectives. This is the power of partnership,” said Yeo.

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