In January 2020, Singapore saw its first cases of COVID-19, a new viral disease that few hospitals could diagnose. Within a month, the COVID-19 Fortitude Kit—a highly specific, all-in-one test kit for the responsible virus—would be deployed at local hospitals, enabling them to diagnose cases onsite. Developed, tested and produced entirely within Singapore, more than nine million Fortitude Kits have been deployed to over 45 countries to date.
This swift journey from basic research to a mass-produced tool—from genomic data on computers to test kits on hospital shelves—took a monumental collaboration between many hands from A*STAR, Tan Tock Seng Hospital and the nation’s R&D ecosystem. That January, the A*STAR engine went into overdrive connecting scientists, engineers, clinicians and manufacturers as they raced against the clock to deliver solutions to a pressing problem facing Singapore and the world.
The Fortitude story is just one of many innovations that A*STAR has helped realise throughout the agency’s more than 30-year history as a national driver for scientific discovery and technological innovation.
Within A*STAR, the innovation value chain begins with a strong foundation in research: both use-inspired basic research (UIBR), which uncovers novel, significant scientific insights with potential future applications; and applied and translational research (ATR), which adapts them into solutions for real-world issues. Fortitude itself was built on years of relevant UIBR and ATR expertise at the A*STAR Bioinformatics Institute (BII) and the Experimental Drug Development Centre (EDDC).
For A*STAR Chief Innovation Officer (CINO) Peter Nagler, innovative research is rooted in a mindset that embraces change, curiosity, risk-taking, persistence and creativity in pursuit of novel solutions. Such traits can be fostered within organisations like A*STAR through initiatives such as design-thinking workshops, maker spaces, and monthly time off for innovation activities, he said.
“Culturing innovation is about providing opportunities: offering a safe environment to try out things and creating an ecosystem that encourages people to do the impossible,” said Nagler. “In turn, we expect research talents to give back to the ecosystem with their scientific expertise, creativity, diversity and passion for the benefit of others.”
However, Nagler emphasised that while good science is part of the equation, innovation also takes implementation; be it as a product or service, an innovation must create value for others.
“At A*STAR, we continuously generate new scientific insights, but these must be transformed into something tangible—such as new or improved products or services, willingly used and funded—to be considered innovations in their final form,” explained Nagler. “The road from an idea to a solution is often long and arduous. To realise that idea, you need to understand the limits of your competencies and find the right ecosystem partnerships with the right people, skills and behaviours.”
For even the most senior researchers, it can be a daunting task to take their insights into further stages of the innovation value chain. Thankfully at A*STAR, they have the support of a key division: the A*STAR Innovation and Enterprise (I&E).
Innovation and Enterprise: Strengthening the pipeline
A*STAR I&E Group’s mission is simple: to help translate good science from A*STAR into marketable products and services.
“Our mission is closely aligned to Singapore’s Research Innovation Enterprise (RIE) 2025 masterplan,” said Sze Wee Tan, I&E Assistant Chief Executive. “I&E creates opportunities for greater synergies between A*STAR and its partners in various partnerships, ranging from research collaborations to intellectual property (IP) licencing and the creation of spinoff companies from A*STAR research.”
The group hosts a spectrum of platforms and initiatives to support all stages in the innovation pipeline: from UIBR and ATR, to product development and patenting, manufacturing scale-up and market access. Industry clusters within the division provide expertise in a wide range of sectors, including electronics, precision engineering, agritechnology, digital health and advanced manufacturing.
A*STAR I&E also oversees national platforms such as the Diagnostics Development (DxD) Hub, which helped bring Fortitude to life. Building on genomics research from BII and EDDC, DxD Hub helped optimise the test kit and devised a comprehensive, quality-assured manufacturing process. This process was then shared with ecosystem partners such as MiRXES, a biotech company that itself began as an A*STAR spinoff, to help scale up production rapidly.
“Our Local Enterprise Office (LEO) provides local enterprises with end-to-end support to build strategies, expand networks and form R&D partnerships,” said Tan. “With added help for technology planning, transfer and access, LEO has collectively impacted over 4,000 local enterprises.”
I&E also plays a role in national grant administration for innovative research under the RIE 2025 plan. One such grant, the Manufacturing, Trade and Connectivity (MTC) Programmatic Funding Initiative, helped launch OculaR BIomaterials and Device (OrBID), a programme that develops hydrogel-based biomaterials for unmet needs in ophthalmology. Led by Xinyi Su, a Principal Investigator at A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), the OrBID programme has since led to a spinoff, Vitreogel Innovations (VGI), which received S$2.7 million in venture funds for commercialisation.
Many spinoffs have also been founded by A*STAR researchers who aim to turn their lab findings into real-world innovations. Through support from various I&E initiatives, enterprises such as Revivo Biosystems, founded by Massimo Alberti, a researcher formerly from A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech), are bringing cutting-edge technology such as human skin-and-chip microfluidics devices into reality.
“Innovation is no easy feat. However, through our collective efforts, we can position Singapore as a thriving global hub for research, innovation and enterprise,” said Tan.
From scholars to innovators
Several former A*STAR Graduate Academy (A*GA) scholars have founded spinoffs that have since gained traction with significant venture funding support. These include biotech startup Ligature Therapeutics, the first spinoff from A*STAR’s Experimental Drug Development Centre (EDDC).
Co-founder, Ligature Therapeutics
Co-founded in late-2020 by A*STAR scholar Alvin Hung with fellow EDDC researchers Thomas Keller and Congbao Kang, Ligature uses novel drug discovery technology developed at EDDC to design small molecule targeted protein degraders (TPDs); a new generation of potentially life-saving drugs that could act on previously ‘undruggable’ disease-causing proteins in cancer and other illnesses.
After licensing the technology through I&E, Ligature would go on to raise US$6 million in seed funding through the support of Lightstone Ventures, a life sciences venture capital fund, and Enterprise Singapore (EnterpriseSG), a government agency for enterprise development.
Other A*GA scholars with building momentum include:
Yann Chong Tan
Solutions: Gene therapies for untreatable cardiomyopathies.
Progress: Raised US$24 million in June 2021 in Series A financing, co-led by EVX Ventures and the Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund (BIVF).
Co-founder, Sequential Skin
Solutions: Genomic and microbiome assays for skin health.
Progress: Raised US$2.7 million to date with support from EnterpriseSG, A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), and other local and international investors.
A*START Central: The deep tech incubator
One key I&E initiative is A*START Central (A*SC), an open innovation platform focused on growing deep tech startups—startups that develop cutting-edge technology to solve advanced engineering or scientific challenges.
“A*SC is a melting pot for deep tech startups, thanks to its facilities and equipment, layered with a continuum of A*STAR ecosystem support in the form of access to technology, talent and programmes,” said Irene Cheong, Executive Director of I&E’s Health and Human Potential (HHP) Industry Cluster, as well as Venture Creation and Growth (VC&G). “We encourage and prepare A*STAR staff to venture build, and help external startup founders with their growth by tapping on A*STAR intellectual property and resources.”
A*SC was created in 2016 to address a national gap in incubating medtech and biotech startups which needed costly infrastructure, particularly wet labs, for prototyping or testing. Today, it hosts venture-building programmes open to both A*STAR staff and aspiring entrepreneurs. As deep tech startups typically need a longer gestation period to reach market readiness, A*SC’s entrepreneurship, pitching, and business modelling training helps prepare startups for the fundraising process.
The platform also provides community-building and peer support programmes for researchers, entrepreneurs, and investors across diverse disciplines.
“We see ourselves first and foremost as an ecosystem builder,” said Cheong. “Pre-COVID, we were hosting close to 300 events a year, ranging from two-hour sharing sessions with partners to four-day bootcamps. Every year, we estimate over 10,000 people attend our events.”
These events include the A*SC Essentials Programme on core entrepreneurial skills, one-on-one clinics with industry professionals, and mentor link-ups for business development, said Cheong.
At present, A*SC has incubated more than 80 deep tech startups, and has raised more than S$950 million in funds since 2016. In the last tranche of RIE funding, A*STAR spinoffs and startups supported by the agency raised over S$500 million to bring their solutions to life.
A*STAR Makeathon: a hotbed of creativity
One of A*SC’s newest programmes, the A*STAR Makeathon, is an annual creative challenge open to A*STAR researchers aiming to accelerate innovative ideas into prototypes.
“The Makeathons foster entrepreneurial thinking within A*STAR and generate key experiences on how to translate an idea into a marketable product,” said Nagler.
The inaugural event, held in 2021, featured the theme of sustainable solutions for Singapore. Twenty teams pitched their ideas to a jury, with nine shortlisted for training and support in business building and developing their prototypes. Of these, three winning innovations were selected for further A*STAR support:
- Ecotracker: a plug-and-play artificial intelligence (AI) device to help households track food item expiry and reduce wastage.
- PowerClad: a low-cost, easily retrofitted adaptive solar facade to cool buildings while generating
- IMEnviro: compact and self-calibrated sensor modules to monitor crops in vertical farms.
Singapore Biodesign: Developing health technopreneurs
Another skills-building initiative hosted under I&E is Singapore Biodesign (SB), a national talent development platform for innovators in the Health and MedTech (HMT) ecosystem. SB provides a repertoire of training programmes based on the original Biodesign Programme developed by Stanford University.
“The Biodesign framework has been validated across international markets,” said Tan. “Our training covers eight main innovation skills and competencies laid out in the HMT Innovation Talent white paper jointly endorsed by the National Research Foundation Singapore (NRF), Enterprise Singapore (EnterpriseSG) and A*STAR.”
These competencies are paired with “a needs-centric methodology that provides our target adult professional with a robust playbook to support their daily work,” he added.
Created in joint partnership with Stanford University and the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), SB’s programmes include bite-sized subsidised workshops covering domain-specific knowledge for HMT innovators, as well as open-access lectures from HMT industry experts.
Six-month SB fellowships also provide more intensive Biodesign training, particularly their flagship Innovation Fellowship, a full-time programme focused on developing new HMTs for unmet clinical needs in Asia. Alternately, the SB Faculty Fellowship offers a part-time programme for senior leaders in HMT looking to adopt Biodesign in their institutions. To support fellowship alumni, SB’s Early Prototyping Support offers advanced training, and the BOLT Initiative offers in-market mentoring for accelerated US market access.
To date, SB has trained over 750 innovators including fellows, university students and industry professionals in the HMT ecosystem. Within A*STAR alone, more than 100 individuals across the agency’s divisions have received Biodesign training, while SB’s Design Thinking workshops have covered more than 450 researchers and corporate staff.
“Moving forward, SB is also working with I&E’s Medtech, Diagnostics and Digital Health (MDD) cluster and the rest of A*STAR to create new training programmes and expand our current BOLT programme with renowned US incubator Fogarty Innovation,” said Tan.
At a glance: Biodesigned innovations by SB Innovation Fellowship Alumni
Henry Ho Sun Sien (2011)
Director, The Innovation Centre, SingHealth; Chairman (Surgery/Surgical Oncology), SGH/NCCS
Solutions: The Mona Lisa, a robotics-assisted transperineal prostate biopsy device under A*STAR spinoff Biobot Surgicals; Klaro, a surgical lighting solution.
Prusothman Sina Raja (2014)
CEO and Co-founder, Privi Medical/Hannah Life Technologies
Solutions: Instalief, a drug-free immediate pain relief device for haemorrhoids; Hannahlife, an effective low-cost home infertility treatment.
Three innovation journeys
Perspectives from three A*STAR researchers who took innovative research into successful spinoff enterprises.
Yeow Kee Tan
A*STAR’s Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R)
The spinoff: SoundEye
The innovation: Advanced sound recognition technology for elderly care monitoring, detecting abnormal sounds and falls.
The challenges: “It can be hard to find a product-market fit. Prototyping is typically costly, and making products means working on aesthetic design, bill-of-material costs, ease of installation and so on. You also have to consider the go-to-market strategy and pricing.”
The A*STAR support: “A*STAR’s T-Up programme helped us recruit experienced engineers despite the manpower shortages in Singapore.”
Dare to take calculated risks.
“Turning an idea for an application into technology takes time and investment—this is a risk we must embrace.”
Believe in your goals.
“Having the mindset to do good and improve the lives of others will keep you moving forward, no matter how many failures you may face along the way.”
Words to future innovators:
Keep the fire going.
“Be humble, hungry and daring when thinking of new ways to improve the quality of life of one’s community!”
Choon Peng Ng
A*STAR’s Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN)
The spinoff: Immunoscape
The innovation: A deep immunomics platform to discover novel T-cell receptor-based therapeutics.
The challenges: “To optimise our work, we had to keep solving technical problems in the lab and improving protocols, reagents and pipelines. We had to come up with single-cell sequencing technology adapted for our needs and hire for specific skillsets, such as machine learning, to refine our predictive algorithms.”
The A*STAR support: “A*STAR I&E licenced the technology developed in SIgN to us. As we grew and needed capital, they referred us to local and overseas investors. In the early years, we had research collaborations with SIgN and were co-located within their facilities for some time.”
Step outside your field.
“My mentor taught me to observe and gain exposure to how other industries operate, and to think of ways to apply and adapt their innovations to my own industry.”
Give everyone a voice.
“Solutions don’t have to come from the top. Create a culture where every team member is empowered and encouraged to contribute their own ideas.”
Words to future innovators:
Prepare mentally for the long haul and be mission-driven.
“Keep loved ones in the loop. Inform them of how your plans might impact your personal life as you’ll need their support. Remember that your endeavours also impact other people in your life.”
Min Han Tan
A*STAR’s Institute of Bioengineering and Bioimaging (IBB)
The spinoff: Lucence
The innovation: Early cancer detection using non-invasive liquid biopsy.
The challenges: “Challenges include finding financial support for research, suitable applications and commercialisation. Inventions in the biotech industry have a long gestation period. Also, commercialising innovative technology involves basic research studies and creating important intellectual property (IP).”
The A*STAR support: “Academic and financial support from large public sector agencies such as A*STAR and NRF helped us in our early liquid biopsy translational studies. They also provided us with industrial grants and clinical samples to help us translate our innovations and gain real-world evidence.”
Pair imagination with relentless execution.
“Seeing the suffering caused by invasive diagnostic tools and late-stage cancer treatment drove me to make a promise that I would develop quicker, less painful solutions.”
Words to future innovators:
Build on deep scientific insights.
“Our work is built on generations of past discoveries.”
Be commercially aware.
“When building tools for real-world applications, try to validate their commercial potential and pinpoint target segments to guide product development.”
“In its 30-year history, A*STAR has shown its capability to innovate and contribute value to Singapore’s economy and society, supporting its ambition to become a world-class scientific hub,” said Nagler.
To keep that momentum going, the agency will continue to strongly invest in nurturing research talent across scientific disciplines, growing the UIBR and ATR expertise at the heart of innovation. Through this and tandem support for network-building, commercialisation and other downstream parts of the innovation value chain, the agency will continue to fulfil its role as an innovation engine, driving its strategic growth to meet Singapore’s national aspirations and grand challenges.
The Innovation Factory
Sitting in Singapore’s Jurong Innovation District is one of A*STAR’s more recent efforts to cultivate the country’s innovation ecosystem: the Innovation Factory (IF).
Created in partnership between the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech) and Enterprise Singapore (EnterpriseSG), the co-creation space is a one-stop centre for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) looking to ideate, design, engineer and produce new innovative products. Equipped with industrial design expertise and advanced manufacturing capabilities, IF aims to accelerate the innovation journey for these enterprises by helping them tap into A*STAR’s scientists and engineers, as well as licence A*STAR technology to support their creations.
“Many SMEs in Singapore have an extensive background in products through years of supporting larger companies in their supply chains and distribution,” said David Low, SIMTech Executive Director. “Some SMEs might have ideas for innovative products of their own. However, the infrastructure needed to turn that idea into a product on the shelf can often be too costly for them, unlike larger companies with in-house R&D departments.”
A helping hand for SMEs
IF was conceived after Low and A*STAR Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Frederick Chew toured research facilities in Germany that were able to demonstrate real, tangible products built upon their research and capabilities.
“Our CEO had the idea that we could do more product innovation within our labs, and we thought it would be good to work with experienced SMEs who had the ambition to own their inventions,” said Low.
The pilot IF facility was opened at SIMTech in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the challenges at the time, the full facility is now operational alongside SIMTech’s new location at JTC CleanTech 2B, with an official launch planned for 2023.
Within IF, various labs offer prototyping equipment ranging from 3D printers for additive manufacturing to virtual and augmented reality systems for exploring simulated materials and designs. These are paired with consultations with design and engineering experts across A*STAR to accelerate prototype creation and upscaling.
In 2021, four innovative products were launched by SMEs in collaboration with IF, ranging from nutritious edible cutlery to photogrammetric laser scanners. “We measure IF’s success by whether our partners eventually launch their product,” said Low.
The IF team also works with A*STAR research institutes (RIs) to help them productise solutions. One such recent collaboration was with the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE), which produced a detection system to assess possible contaminants in commercial milk powders.
Widening the wheel
To assemble the unique skillsets needed to tackle a variety of design projects (which can range from factory-floor electronics to food and beverages), IF is led by a small core team that draws on deeper scientific and engineering expertise as needed—what Low calls a hub-and-spoke model.
“The IF team consists of industrial designers, project managers and business managers. We pull researchers and engineers from various RIs and the local R&D ecosystem to put together the different skillsets needed for each industry and project,” said Low. “Between SIMTech and the Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC), we have a broad range of experts and engineering know-how across multiple research groups to draw from.”
Low, who also holds the role of Chief Executive Officer at ARTC, notes that the flexibility of this approach allows IF project teams to be iterative and agile in product development, jumping as needed between the four phases of IF’s IDEA methodology: Ideation, Design, Engineering and Application.
“We give our people the freedom to innovate and come up with ideas for solutions,” said Low. “We also break projects down into shorter phases, allowing us to fail fast and learn faster, which is key to innovation.”
Work at IF aligns with a wider agenda for innovation at SIMTech and ARTC, which are industry-fronting translational RIs within A*STAR. While ARTC is more consortium-based, working with large companies, end users and technology service providers, SIMTech’s ethos is to focus on SMEs, helping them stay competitive through advanced manufacturing technologies.
“At SIMTech and ARTC, we’re working to advance innovation in four areas: autonomous manufacturing, advanced manufacturing processes, net-zero manufacturing, and a resilient value chain,” said Low.
“To do this, we’re collaborating with our sister RIs in A*STAR for interdisciplinary solutions, as innovation doesn’t happen only in one domain. Our ethos is to have a balance of ‘build, borrow, buy’; rather than build everything from the ground up ourselves, we bring others with deeper knowledge or critical leverage.”
While the Innovation Factory may be up and running, it is slated for multiple phases of further development, each aimed at deepening and broadening its capabilities.
“Breadth-wise, we’re hoping to cover more industries, while depth-wise, we’re moving towards high-value design—design for circularity, for sustainability, and even for business model innovation,” said Low. “Step by step, we will increase the complexity we can offer our partners on their innovation journey.”