Dr. Mariano A. Garcia-Blanco and Dr. Subhash G. Vasudevan, Founders of SABio Pte Ltd
16 September 2011
By Ai San Yip, Horrace Owino, Vaishnavi Radhakrishnan
Photo Creative by Larry Lim, Marco Studio
(From Left to Right) Dr. Mariano A. Garcia-Blanco, Founder, Mr. Rene Jaeggi, Managing Director and Dr. Vasudevan Subhash, Founder of SABio.
SABio (Singapore Advanced Biologics) is a biotech services start-up that focuses on design, synthesis and validation of specialised R&D biologics such as siRNA, DNA oligos and monoclonal antibodies.Â
1. Share with us your story and the motivation behind SABio.
Subhash: I my completed PhD Biochemistry (1998) and Post Doctoral Research (1991) at Australian National University. After my Post Doc Research, I was provided with a sneak peek into the early development of the Biotech industry in Singapore during a two months stint in Singapore in 1991. I was invited to help set up an insect cell protein expression system at what is now known as the Bio-processing Technology Institute (BTI, A*STAR). At that time, BTI was an operational unit spun out of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology. It was engaged intensely in building up biotechnology in Singapore. There were high level efforts to bring in laboratories from United States and Europe to Singapore.
To give an impetus to these efforts, one of the first things I did was to connect Australian Trade Organisation (AUSTrade) to Singapore as there was not much of Australian Science being represented here. I got a first-hand taste of the wider biotechnology scene in Singapore when I came with the Biosciences Manager of ANUTech. The Australian National Universityâ€™s commercialization arm to explore possible opportunities.Â At that time, Hammerhead Ribozyme technology was big news in Canberra and the possibility for the development of virus-resistant vegetable crops was being discussed widely. This was a potential technology that we hoped to bring to Singapore. However, that never happened. I have always had this urge to do something in the Biotechnology start-ups area. After ten years in (Australia) academia I moved to Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases (Singapore) during 2003 till 2008 where I was Unit Head of Dengue Research and then as Associate Professor at the Emerging Infectious Diseases Program at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, the urge to start a company was irresistible.
Mariano: I am a Biochemist and MD.Â I did not pursue Medicine Fellowship as I knew I have had the bug to be involved in biotechnology and biomedical businesses. Possibly, the greatest inspiration came from the fact that I completed my Fellowship in Massachusetts Institute of Technology under Professor Philip A. Sharp (Dr. Philip Sharp won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 1993). Being exposed to the entrepreneurial culture at MIT, further strengthened my resolve to be involved in a biotech start-ups. Then, I was appointed as Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology and Medicine and Director of Centre for RNA Biology at Duke University in U.S. and since 2006 I have a double appointment in Emerging Infectious Diseases at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore.
I have started three companies that ranged from high-risk to low-risk. My first was involved in gene therapy, Intronn Inc. (now part of VIRxSYS, Rockville MD USA), the second was Veri-Q Inc. (a Proteomics Company subsidiary, Surrey United Kingdom). SABio is my third â€“ we realised that there was a lack of access to reagents (defined as â€˜the problemâ€™) in Singapore, especially biologics such as monoclonal antibodies, and nucleic acids. This put fellow scientists at huge disadvantage. We think SABioâ€™s strength as a company will help bio-enterprises in Singapore.
2. So there is a lack of access to reagents in Singapore, but are notÂ most biologic reagents purchased from other countries?
Subhash: There are two perspectives to the problem. I was told by a famous venture capital investor in Singapore, that you can certainly fly in â€œquality oystersâ€ (an analogy used) from anywhere in the world by overnight freight. However, you cannot do the same thing over and over again with biological products because the incurring cost(s) will be too prohibitive. We also have experienced five or six weeks of experimental delay that arise from procurement of siRNA. The turnaround for service from overseas providers is the major cause of these five or six weeks of delay.
Mariano: Yes, an end-user will need to pay a high price, and five-week wait till you get one. So the bottom-line is if Singapore wants to be a top-notched biomedical hub, we should not want to lose out on the waiting time (that could incurred from procurement process). Scientistsâ€™ and researchersâ€™ time is incredibly valuable; they want to be effective and efficient in our discovery process.
We also want to influence other start-ups with enthusiasm and be the multiplier in Singapore ... like the analogy of oysters ... in many similar ways, our feeling was to give back something to Singapore and be committed to Singapore start-up ecosystem and SABio.Â Â
We were on-site to witness the installation and trial run of SABioâ€™s Synthesiser residing in SingHealth Research Facility, Singapore. SABio promises to offer the shortest turnaround of R&D oligos to Asiaâ€™s researchers in genomics and proteomics.
3. What are some of the support you received?
Mariano: I have to reinforce that the Deans at Duke-NUS were all very supportive. They said this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it. We thought it through very carefully upfront. They connected us to the clinician networks. In the future, we hope to work with clinicians to co-apply for grants to develop products and reagents and perhaps convert some of these tests into diagnostic tests. We can bring the idea and work with clinicians and be their partners. We are a research company but a good partner for translational research.
In terms of financial and business support BioVeda Capital has been fantastic partner. We managed to raise Series A Funds. BioVeda Capital provides us more than cash; they are great partners and board members. You will choose a VC firm just like they choose you. BioVeda Capital has lots of experience in working with worldwide clients and relationship links to United States and China principals. And they were very compelled by our business model. They bring ideas and bring ways to make SABio better.
The interaction with SingHealth was also a good one. It was the interest of SingHealth to see how they can help start-ups to flourish in this clinical translational campus.
Editorsâ€™ Note: SABio has a support from an investment from BV Healthcare II, a life science fund managed by BioVeda CapitalÂ and an equity-investment from SingHealth.
4. Who are your first customer and market?
Mariano: Broadly, any researcher in Singapore. We have a curious crowd from Duke-NUS. This is a business that researchers and scientists will talk to each other about the quality and credibility of the services that they received. Our hope is that SABio will have great supporters because of our quality. We have good friends in the researcher networks. As our terrain is being set up, we will pursue an organic growth strategy.Â Â
Subhash: siRNA services and monoclonal antibodies are about 40 Billion dollar market. The potential for several bio-therapeutical applications in the next decade will be interesting. For example, you might have targeted-specific small molecules and designer siRNAs used for eye infections (age-related macular degeneration) and interesting cocktail formulations for respiratory conditions. You will see more upside in those localised, targeted and sustained siRNA delivery. Some breakthroughs in formulations and applications must happen.
5. Is there any proprietary technology in Oligos manufacturing?
Mariano: We are going to solve the problem of access to the most commonly used antibodies and DNA products so even though we have some proprietary technology in the form of chemistry, our strengths mostly lie in know-how. You do not need fancy qualifications to sell antibodies and oligos to the research market (it is a different story if you are going into the bio-therapeutics market). The difference with our offering is that we are not only going synthesize these things, but are also going to work closely with our customers as they conduct their experiments. Some people blindly do the experiments without knowing that there are a lot of issues which you need to be aware of and this is where we feel we can actually help. We have extensive experience in these areas, Subhash being more on the antibody side and myself on the DNA side.
Subhash: Those are the kinds of things that we can bring to the table and I think the VCs see that. You cannot just get a basic biologist to do this. The technology that is here requires a lot more biological expertise in handling clones and animals for example. Furthermore, we have found an outstanding partner for our initial operations through the recommendation of a very senior scientist with massive experince in Antibody technology. This partner will support us at first but in the long run, our goal is to do everything within SABio and Singapore. It will take a while to develop everything in house but we plan to do it in parallel.
6. If there is one word of advice you can give to aspiring technopreneurs who are looking to start their business in the biomedical industry, what would that be?
Subhash: Go out there and try. For example, NUS has all these entrepreneurship support schemes and programs in place for entrepreneurs. So I would advise aspiring technopreneurs to get the right team and try their hand at it.
Mariano: I would like to stress on having the right team. When I started my first company, I only knew my partner distantly through research. He was a good researcher but a disastrous head of company. The VCs were wise enough to insist on having the company in Durham so I could be close enough to check on the operations frequently. I did not know that he was a disaster until we started running the company. Therefore I would advise people to make sure they know their team members really well before committing to starting a company with them.