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Planting the seeds of scientific success.

© A*STAR Research

Nurturing Singapore’s scientific talents

17 Dec 2021

From the public sector to innovative startups and industry giants, A*STAR scholars are blazing the trail across Singapore’s research ecosystem.

Over 250 years ago, in a collection of essays known as The Way to Wealth, US founding father Benjamin Franklin emphasized the foundational role of education for future success. Writing that “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest,” his advice has proven to be both timeless and borderless.

Despite being located on the other side of the globe, Singapore is a shining testament of the truth of Franklin’s words. To nurture promising scientific minds, A*STAR launched the A*STAR Graduate Academy (A*GA) in 2002 to provide scholarships and fellowships to young scientific talent. Today, A*GA scholars have since gone on to become changemakers in various public and private sectors, proving that A*STAR’s impact in Singapore’s research ecosystem echoes far beyond the research conducted within the agency itself.

From undergraduate to postdoctoral studies, A*GA has seen several batches of scholars since take up leadership roles in public research and industry. As we commemorate A*STAR’s 30th anniversary, discover how the A*GA National Science Scholarship (NSS) and the A*STAR Graduate Scholarship (AGS) continue to shape research, innovation and enterprise in Singapore. Hear from six scholars as they share their scientific journeys, made possible through the opportunities at A*GA.

Building an innovation pipeline for Singapore

Once they complete their studies locally or overseas, A*GA scholars join the scientific ecosystem in various capacities. Often, they embark on a research career at A*STAR under the tutelage of top scientists. It is through such training and support that these bright young minds become strong contributors to innovation and research in Singapore.

With a vision to tackle disease, Hwee Ching Ang serves as Deputy CEO of the Experimental Drug Development Centre (EDDC), a national platform hosted within A*STAR. Today, she and Zhenzhi Chng, Director of the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office’s (SNDGO) National AI Office (NAIO), are drawing on what they learned as A*STAR scholars to make waves across Singapore.

Hwee Ching Ang
Deputy CEO, Experimental Drug Development Centre (EDDC), A*STAR

1. Can you share a particularly memorable experience from your time at A*STAR?

After I joined the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) in 2006, I went on an overseas trip as an accompanying officer with then co-Chairmen Philip Yeo and Chuan Poh Lim. I felt hugely out of my depth but also immensely touched by the kindness and generosity of the senior colleagues I was traveling with. At that time, the place we traveled to had relatively limited resources for biomedical research and healthcare, yet the researchers we met were passionate and committed to science. They were focused on making a positive impact on healthcare and emphasized the importance of creating a translational loop from bench to bed and back to the bench to achieve this. I learned a lot and was deeply inspired. We already have a strong base here in Singapore and are well-funded. I believe we can punch above our weight at the global level and this is what we should aspire to do.

2. Why did you choose to go into drug discovery and development? How has the field changed since the early 2000s?

I enjoy the collaborative nature of drug discovery and development. No single individual or organization can solve complex human diseases on their own. We need to bring complementary expertise together from the public and private sectors to deliver meaningful healthcare solutions to patients. The biggest change in the field is probably how we are increasingly generating and processing huge datasets, enabled by advancements in AI. This has already started to transform drug discovery research and development.

3. What are your hopes for A*STAR’s future?

As a key pillar of Singapore’s research and innovation ecosystem, I hope A*STAR will continue to attract global scientific and entrepreneurial talent to further build the nation’s R&D capabilities.

Zhenzhi Chng
Director (National AI Office), Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO)

1. How do you think A*STAR has changed over the years?

A*STAR is constantly evolving. They have done very well in explaining their continued relevance to Singapore. My recollection of A*STAR’s strategy to build up science in Singapore in the early days was to seed scientific excellence by attracting top talent and training local talent.

The last decade saw an increased national focus on value creation. A*STAR responded by strengthening research translation, industry collaborations and commercialization. In the recent few years, more attention has been put on addressing national priorities. Accordingly, A*STAR is supporting other public agencies and using its scientific and engineering capabilities to solve these national challenges.

2. Can you tell us more about your work implementing AI across Singapore?

The NAIO was set up in the SNDGO to implement the National AI Strategy (NAIS). Launched in November 2019, the NAIS aims to position Singapore as a leader in developing and deploying scalable and impactful AI solutions. The strategy focuses on National AI Programs that drive AI deployment in key sectors, such as healthcare, education, smart estates, logistics and border security. The strategy also offers recommendations to strengthen ecosystem enablers such as talent, data architecture and AI governance—all of which are building blocks for a sustainable AI ecosystem.

As NAIO’s founding director, I set up the team to drive the national AI agenda and catalyze efforts across government, industry and academia to achieve the outcomes of the NAIS. NAIO jointly leads the implementation of the National AI Programs with the respective sector leads. We also work with the relevant agencies to strengthen ecosystem enablers. In addition, we rigorously monitor progress to ensure that the strategy is implemented diligently and consistently.

3. What vision do you have for the future of A*STAR?

A*STAR wears many hats: the agency grooms scientific talent, drives scientific excellence through basic research, translates technology to benefit the economy and society as well as addresses national challenges. My hope is for A*STAR to continue to wear its many hats well and build on its decades of experience and wealth of scientific capabilities to become the ‘go-to’ technology agency for the public and private sectors.

Taking commercial solutions to the next level

For innovations to truly make an impact, solutions need to go beyond the laboratory and be made available at scale. Enter A*StartCentral (A*SC)—an A*STAR initiative that supports spinoffs and startups as they pursue further development and commercialization. By offering access to A*STAR’s talent pool, partners and facilities, A*SC helps spinoffs and startups bring their technology to market and grow their business.

With her dedication to translating research from bench to bedside, AGS scholar Pauline Tay was a perfect fit for A*STAR biotechnology spinoff Celligenics. Concurrently the Executive Director and Head of Innovation Partnerships at the United Bank of Switzerland (UBS). Tay continues to contribute to Celligenics as a strategic advisor. Here, Tay and Lu-En Wai, Director of Research and Development at biotechnology company Lion TCR, share how A*STAR’s support has helped them commercialize cutting-edge innovations.

Pauline Tay
Strategic Advisor, Celligenics

1. Why did you apply for the AGS?

I was one of the first few A*STAR officers assisting scholars who had applied to the overseas scholarships and fellowships preceding AGS then. Since I had always wanted to do a PhD, I knew applying for AGS would give me the leverage and exposure I would need to stay ahead in Singapore’s growing science and innovation landscape.

2. Can you tell us about a notable research project you worked on?

While at A*STAR, I discovered how modulating central regulators called Rho GTPases could influence the stemness and differentiation potential of embryonic stem cells. But while trying to dive deeper into the signaling pathways and mechanisms of how it worked, a Japanese group published their observations—albeit without mechanisms—in Nature Biotechnology ahead of us. That taught me that to excel and be globally competitive in science, you have to be the first to publish, patent or commercialize your discoveries. That made me dedicate the next few years of my career to developing systems to catalyze the commercialization of R&D.

3. How has A*STAR supported commercial innovation in Singapore?

A*STAR is a pioneer in creating spinoffs from deep science and engineering, particularly in biotech and medtech at a time when no one understood or was interested in investing in this space. A*STAR also actively promotes spinoffs to partners, assists their scientists and researchers with patent strategy and provides gap or seed funding to bring them closer to market.

If not for A*STAR’s continuous assistance, some of our local spinoffs would have struggled to get global attention. Because of COVID-19, global partners have started to take notice of our local biotech and medtech SMEs like MiRXES, Nuevocor and Proteona, and many have managed to attract private capital investments.

Lu-En Wai
Director of Research and Development, Lion TCR

1. Before your bachelor’s degree you briefly worked at A*STAR. Did the experience inspire you to pursue a career in research?

I was always interested in studying biomedical sciences and joining A*STAR—then known as the National Science and Technology Board (NSTB)—as a corporate communications temporary staff member opened my eyes to the different research entities in Singapore. I was on the sidelines of burgeoning efforts to build up a strong research community and ecosystem. The experience made me believe that there was a good future for biomedical research in Singapore.

2. Can you tell us about your role and what you aim to do at Lion TCR?

Lion TCR is a biotech startup using A*STAR technology developed by Antonio Bertoletti’s team at the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS). By tapping on a library of hepatitis B virus-specific T cell receptors (TCR), we can redirect a patient’s immune cells, specifically T cells, to home in and kill HBV-expressing liver cancer cells in a body. We aim to expand this technology to treat more viral-related cancers and viral infections.

As Director of Research and Development at Lion TCR, I oversee the discovery and development of the TCR library, companion assays and new pipeline products in collaboration with academic and industry partners. We aim to bring novel and effective cellular immunotherapy products into the clinics to treat patients who have limited treatment options available. Personally, I intend to continue developing new technologies in immunotherapy and diagnostics for disease treatment.

3. How has A*STAR shaped Singapore’s local research ecosystem?

A*STAR has been a driving force in building the biomedical sciences ecosystem in Singapore. The agency has also been very supportive of industry-related research. Through partnership programs like the Technology for Enterprise Capability Upgrading (T-Up), they also support local SME innovation, which is important for growing Singapore’s scientific ecosystem.

Contributing to the global research landscape and industry

With their sights set outside the ‘Little Red Dot,’ some scholars choose to apply their talents through industry research in regional and international companies. Thanks to expertise picked up at A*STAR and an education supported by A*GA, these scholars are well-equipped to lead complex research projects funded by industry giants.

Consider the example of Netherlands-based Shawn Tan, who helped set up the food company Danone’s Nutricia Campus. Find out how he and Eva Loo, Head of Cell and Tissue Engineering at Evonik, contribute to the global research landscape with lessons they learned from their time at A*STAR.

Shawn Tan
Product Manager (Danone Nutricia Campus), Danone

1. Can you tell us more about your work in nanoplasmonics?

My work in nanoplasmonics at A*STAR was inspired by my graduate studies on nanoparticle self-assembly but takes a different approach—we used electro-beam lithography to precisely define the size and position of nanopixels.

We then looked to create these nanopixels with aluminum, which is much cheaper and more sustainable than gold or silver. In addition, we expanded the color palette by tweaking a combination of parameters such as the size, spacing and position of the pixels. All these strategies allowed us to create the smallest-ever reproduction of Monet’s Impression, Sunrise with aluminum nanopixels.

2. How has the scholarship and your subsequent time at A*STAR shaped your career and research success?

I am incredibly thankful for the scholarship and my time at A*STAR, both of which opened many doors for me. I am always eager to learn new things and, fortunately, I was able to explore and succeed in new endeavors with the valuable support I received at A*STAR.

Through the different technical domains, roles and functions I experienced at A*STAR, I honed my ability to navigate and succeed in complex situations. This allowed me to succeed in a large global organization like Danone, where I recently helped set up an entirely new non-profit organization for educating healthcare professionals.

3. How has A*STAR shaped Singapore’s research ecosystem in the past 30 years?

A*STAR is a versatile player that fills gaps in the local research ecosystem. It initially served as the seed for new research areas in Singapore, helping it gain global recognition for its scientific excellence. Now, A*STAR is more focused on building tangible impact through supporting industry research and innovation.

For the past ten years, A*STAR’s research capabilities and talent have made it very attractive for industry partners to set up headquarters and establish partnerships in Singapore. Over the years, we have also seen a greater shift in empowering local innovation and supporting the growth of local companies alongside attracting investments from multinational companies. And in the last year, amid the global pandemic, we have also seen A*STAR and its partners step up to support the battle against COVID-19.

Eva Loo
Head of Cell and Tissue Engineering, Evonik

1. Can you tell us more about your role at Evonik?

Evonik is one of the world’s leading specialty chemicals companies. I am part of the Cell and Tissue Engineering team at the Asia research hub. My team focuses on innovating solutions in regenerative medicine, such as alternatives for animal-derived products used in cell culture. For instance, we work on sustainable biomaterials like recombinant proteins and synthetic biodegradable polymers. These materials can be used to prepare implants to facilitate tissue regeneration and to expand cells for cell therapy.

2. How did the NSS shape your career over the years?

The NSS provides support for many scholars, especially in their early career as postdoctoral fellows. The program assigns senior scientists as mentors to the scholars and often provides invaluable career advice. In fact, my NSS mentor Jackie Ying—who at the time was the Executive Director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN)— linked me up with the team that I joined upon completion of my PhD studies.

During my time at A*STAR, I gained an in-depth understanding of the local research community as well as the infrastructure available. The various opportunities I was given also enabled me to grow my network. When I joined Evonik, I was able to quickly identify local partners who would become key collaborators or provide key services, enabling us to accelerate our research progress.

3. As A*STAR commemorates its 30th anniversary, what hopes do you have for the future of A*STAR?

I wish A*STAR a happy 30th anniversary and more exciting developments to come. I hope the agency will continue to evolve with the changing global landscape and thus better champion research, development and innovation in Singapore.

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