The conventional wisdom is that Singapore can be a tough place to commercialise long-horizon technologies, such as new drugs. Therapeutic products need visionary and dedicated innovators and require large investments and long development times. Singapore’s investment landscape has historically been more comfortable with deals in real estate, financial services, or e-commerce.
Yet, the small team of creative and committed innovators behind the start-up biotechnology company Enleofen, a spin-out company from Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS) and the National Heart Centre Singapore (NHCS), has shown that it can be done. And that it can be done successfully.
Enleofen was developing bio-therapeutics that could be used in treating a variety of common chronic diseases that result in scar formation, called fibrosis, in internal organs such as the lungs, the heart, or the liver. In December 2019, global pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim, with an interest in developing therapeutic products for some of these diseases, bought Enleofen’s intellectual property assets. The deal could be worth more than $1 billion per new product. The size and scope of this deal is competitive with worldwide pharmaceutical acquisitions, and is the largest biotech deal in Singapore’s history.
This deal has put Singapore biotech squarely on the radar screen of other strategic and corporate investors. It also shines a spotlight on the SingHealth-Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre (AMC) as a global hub for therapeutics innovation. What does Enleofen’s story tell us about how other start-ups might find success here in Singapore?
Sebastian Schäfer is an Assistant Professor in Duke-NUS’ Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disorders (CVMD) Programme, and a Senior Research Fellow at NHCS. Asst Prof Schafer joined Duke-NUS in order to work with Prof Stuart Cook, Tanoto Foundation Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the SingHealth Duke-NUS AMC. Prof Cook is also the Director of the National Heart Research Institute Singapore at the NHCS and Director of Duke-NUS’ CVMD Programme. Together, they discovered one of the underlying mechanisms in the development of fibrotic diseases, and used this discovery as the basis for launching Enleofen.
Early on, there was less capital involved. There was seed funding from SingHealth and from Duke-NUS to do some of the initial commercialisation testing. However, this was certainly not enough to hire a full team for Enleofen. So, the scientists simply rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
Asst Prof Schäfer, a bioengineer by training, had never been involved in commercialisation before, and had a steep learning curve. The team also had help from the Joint Centre for Technology and Development, a collaborative initiative of Duke-NUS’ Centre for Technology and Development and the SingHealth Intellectual Property office. Together they started identifying potential investors, many of them from overseas. However, many of these investors were focused on building out management teams for Enleofen, which would dilute the founders’ vision of the company significantly.
Eventually, it was a pair of Singaporean investors, Jeffrey Lu and Andrew Khoo, who took a chance and paved the way for Enleofen by providing the first private capital. When early results were promising, they followed up with additional financing and brought in other local investors.
The team’s strategy was to keep the management of the company lean, allowing for greater efficiency. To get specific development steps completed, Enleofen worked with many contract research organisations, which Asst Prof Schäfer admitted was a challenge. He cautioned that product development cannot be outsourced and be forgotten. Managing the work started with a lot of diligence to select the right contractor and required remaining involved throughout the process. Being able to work effectively with Duke-NUS and the SingHealth Duke-NUS AMC, helped. With Enleofen’s experience, Duke-NUS and SingHealth continue to explore ways to harmonise processes and aggregate resources to support and accelerate commercialisation through its Joint Centre for Technology and Development.
Enleofen is a Singapore success story. Of course there is plenty of risk before the first product hits the market, but for Singapore’s growing life science start-up scene, the Enleofen deal with Boehringer Ingelheim is a significant milestone.
When asked what drove their success, Jeff Lu said it all started with high caliber science, while the commercialisation pathway was about bootstrapping and persistent networking. The Enleofen team has blazed a trail now and shown that the SingHealth Duke-NUS AMC’s innovation ecosystem can work for other teams who are looking to progress their own research for the advancement of medical care of patients.
And what is next for Asst Prof Schäfer and Prof Cook? They are not done with their work yet, and have already started turning their attention to other possible innovations, which could potentially have a large impact for patients here in Singapore and beyond.