Many were gripped by fear when Zika hit Singapore in May last year, but Tan – who has a PhD in molecular immunology – and her team at Veredus Laboratories had already been preparing for it as early as 2014, when the first outbreak occurred in Oceania. “As it is a mosquito-borne disease, we knew it would be a matter of time before it reached our shores,” says the founder, CEO and chief scientist of the home-grown biotech firm.
The result: a lab-on-a-chip that can detect seven tropical diseases, including Zika, malaria, dengue and chikungunya, with just a drop of blood. The Vere Fever kit, developed in 2015, is among 10 commercially available diagnostic kits that Veredus has produced to identify and differentiate influenza subtypes, tuberculosis, food-borne illnesses, as well as biological agents. It has been sold to countries including China and those in South-east Asia, says Tan.
The 48-year-old is pushing more boundaries: Veredus is currently working on food security products such as beef contamination test kits. “The food industry is such a big untapped market,” says the spirited Tan, gesturing with a hand adorned with an eye-popping diamond and bubblegum pink nail varnish.
“One must be daring to think of the impossible and implement it. The trick is to get people to agree. Now that we have a track record of the effectiveness of our kits, it’s easier.”
That’s something Tan evidently has no problems with. Her clients include international airports, homeland security in various countries and the Brazilian civil security forces which employed Veredus’ technology to test for potential biological threats during the 2014 Fifa World Cup.
Tan started Veredus in 2003 to license and commercialise technologies from agencies such as A*Star, when she saw a gap between institutional labs and the commercial world. At the time, Sars had struck Singapore but detection samples had to be sent elsewhere in the world. The country had thsse research and technology, but it was stuck in the government labs and universities.
In 2005, Veredus created the world’s first commercially available diagnostic kit for the lethal H5N1 bird flu strain. That same year, it sold the kit to 30 countries and became profitable. But Tan’s business instincts drove her to evolve her product, as it could be easily copied. “I always say I’m born a businesswoman and was trained as a scientist,” she says. “How else would I be able to beat the others?”
She teamed up with STMicroelectronics, which was then looking for a partner to develop its lab-on- a-chip. Vere Flu, launched in 2008, put Veredus in the global spotlight. It was the world’s first test kit that could detect over 10 different flu subtypes, including pandemic H1N1, and produced results in an unprecedented two hours.
Her dream is to build “the ultimate detection library” that identifies any known disease. “That idea came from Star Trek, of which I’m a huge fan,” she says. “The show featured a DNA scanner called a tricoder. One look, and it knows what disease you have.”
Tan shoots for the stars, unhampered by gender. She is often the only woman anywhere she goes. “I love it!” exclaims the mother of two.
“We should embrace our gender because we offer a different view, and men actually appreciate that. I like wearing my high heels and makeup. In my industry, there’s no difference being a man or a woman – at least, I don’t feel it.”
Founder and CEO of Veredus Laboratories
YEARS IN OPERATION: 14
THE TECH: Medical diagnostic kits capable of detecting and differentiating tropical diseases, influenza subtypes, food-borne illnesses and biological agents.
IN 60 SECONDS
I’m a huge optimist. Things are moving too fast, to remain upset.
My favourite family activity is the four of us squeezing in bed and talking about everything under the sun.
My antidote to a bad day is shopping at petrol station marts. I can tell you the latest offers and prices of different products.
This story was first published on The Peak on Nov 1, 2017.