Greater support for medtech firms in Singapore to thrive

Singapore's medtech firms need agility, innovation and long-term commitment to stay ahead of the game.

ASIA's medtech market is poised to grow to about US$133 billion in 2020, surpassing the European Union as the second-largest market globally, according to a McKinsey report.

But it is no mean feat for the region to sustain such growth. "It requires agility, innovation, and long-term commitment to stay abreast of trends in this fiercely competitive market," noted the report.

Singapore has in recent years become a hotbed for the medtech sector. According to government agency Enterprise Singapore (ESG), there were over 250 homegrown medtech companies in 2018, more than double that of 2014, with over half of them being startups.

"This is in part due to the established medtech ecosystem in Singapore, providing the right resources and environment for their growth," said Johnny Teo, director for healthcare and biomedical at ESG.

This is especially crucial, given that the demand for medtech solutions will continue to grow on the back of rising healthcare costs, an ageing population, and the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), non-communicable diseases (NCDs), also known as chronic diseases, contribute to more than 40 million deaths a year, making up some 71 per cent of deaths globally.

While innovative medical solutions have prolonged life spans and improved the quality of life, healthcare costs are soaring. WHO estimates showed that 800 million people spend more than 10 per cent of their household income on healthcare. Globally, medical costs push some 100 million people annually into poverty. Another trend unfolding across nations is an ageing population. It is now a phenomenon in both developed and emerging markets, and may come at a huge financial cost.

In Singapore, close to half its total population will be aged 65 years or older in 2050, according to estimates by the United Nations. This demographic shift is bound to put pressure on the Republic's economy as a result of increased healthcare and social services costs.

With mounting costs and growing demand for quality healthcare, it is seen as timely for medtech companies to redefine the delivery of healthcare through innovation. In Singapore, the medtech ecosystem is growing. Official data shows that in 2018, the medtech sector contributed S$13.3 billion to Singapore's economy, from just S$3.1 billion in 2008. But this does not mean the Republic can rest on its laurels. Funding problems aside, the medtech sector faces its own unique set of challenges that have to be addressed to sustain its growth.

Unlike some industries that see fast-changing trends, the medtech industry has to cope with higher barriers of entry and longer gestation periods. "In Singapore, there are a lot of IT, electronics and software companies. The adoption barriers for products in those sectors are lower," said Kim Namyong, chief executive officer of Singapore-based medtech firm, Curiox Biosystems.

"Medtech products have much higher entry levels and longer gestation periods - from product development to adoption and commercialisation," Mr Kim told The Business Times.

Against this backdrop, the Diagnostics Development Hub, formed in 2014 under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) enterprise arm, has been speeding up the commercialisation of technologies. The hub was among some of the measures and initiatives developed over the years to support the medtech ecosystem here.

"We now have more infrastructure in place to support innovation, and medtech-specific intermediaries. These provide early-stage incubation support and investments in medtech startups, and enables them to fast-track the development and commercialisation of technologies," said ESG's Mr Teo.

The city state has also been focusing its efforts to encourage partnerships between public healthcare clusters and medtech startups or SMEs. Given that many major healthcare clusters have teams to accelerate clinical innovations, they serve as a platform for local medtech companies to test out their product in a hospital setting, allowing the products to be better positioned for downstream commercialisation and eventual adoption. In 2018, three public healthcare clusters in Singapore supported some 100 innovations.

For instance, the National University Health System's Centre for Innovation in Healthcare (CIH) allows startups and SMEs to test their products in live ward settings before they roll out their products. It also provides services such as health technology assessment, business evaluation and access to networks and capital.

To encourage more medtech players to set up shop in Singapore, ESG also works closely with intermediaries to provide early-stage incubation support. One such intermediary is Trendlines Medical Singapore, which has established more than eight medtech companies in Singapore within two years.

As the medtech ecosystem continues to expand, Curiox Biosystems' Mr Kim believes that the next step is to educate and spread the word about medtech. "We need more people to understand the market and know the long-term benefits so that we can attract more investors," he said.

"It is a lucrative business that contributes to the community."