Dr. Lear, Martin James, Dr. Kevin Tan, Founders of BioLynx Technologies Pte Ltd
23 August 2011
By Horrace Owino
Edited by Ai San Yip
From Left to Right: Dr. Lear, Martin James, Scientific Director, Chemistry / Founder and Dr. Kevin Tan, Chief Scientific Director, Biology / Founder. Both of them are Assistant Professors in NUS.
BioLynx Technologies, founded by Dr. Kevin Tan and Dr. Martin Lear, has synthesized a fluorescent-labelled chloroquine molecule (also known as the LynxTag Technology platform) with the unique ability to rapidly differentiate drug-sensitive from drug-resistant malaria strains with high specificity and sensitivity. The company is also able to successfully link fluorescent tags to other drugs as an advanced-probe visualization tool and molecular targets for pre-clinical decisions.Â
BioLynx TechnologiesÂ has beenÂ awarded with the NRF Proof of Concept Grant ($230,000) and subsequently, the SPRING Proof-of -Value Grant ($500,000).
1. Share with us your background.
Kevin: I pursued my PhD at the Department of Microbiology, National University of Singapore and my postdoctoral studies at the Laboratory of Molecular Parasitology, The Rockefeller University, under the supervision of Professor George Cross. Upon my return to Singapore in 2003, I took up a position of Assistant Professor at NUS and continued active research on protozoa focusing on programmed cell death pathways in the enteric parasite Blastocystis and the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. At the time, there were several discoveries of the hallmark features of programmed cell death (PCD) in Plasmodium falciparum which presented the possibility of revealing novel targets for antimalarial therapy.
I hypothesized that drugs localized at different cell locations within the parasite in a dose dependent manner but I could not image the drug in cells until I met Martin in NUS.
Martin: Up until this time, I had never thought of working and partnering with Kevin. My teaching in the Department of Chemistry mainly consists of general chemistry to life science and engineering students.
I was trained in organic chemistry and started biosynthetic work when I was making inhibitors of tyrosine kinase as a graduate student at the University of Glasgow where I received my PhD education. This was followed by postdoctoral work at the Park Davis Neuroscience Research Center in Cambridge, UK where I synthetically mimicked the bioactive conformations of peptides. After a four year stint as an Assistant Professor with Masahiro Hirama at Tohoku University, I decided to join the Department of Chemistry and Medicinal Chemistry Program at the National University of Singapore in January 2005. This move coincided with my transition to more applied research as a result of pressure from the funding agencies to work on more industrially relevant projects. This got me thinking about how I could use the various natural products which I had synthesized. Since I already had a strong interest in the synthetic procedures to incorporate fluorescent labels, I was able to combine the past and current experiences on applied research.
2. How did you meet each other and when did you feel any potential to do a start-up?
Kevin: We serendipitously met at an event organized by the NUS Industry Liaison Office (ILO). I challenged Martin to link chloroquine to a fluorescent tag and keep its biological activity. And he successfully did it! Martin synthesized a chloroquine analog which was conjugated to the biologically benign coumarin fluorophore. Biological assays conducted in our lab showed that the new compound behaved similarly to chloroquine in parasite killing. Utilizing this fluorescent drug, the collaboration culminated in a Nature â€“ Cell Death & Disease publication which reported that PCD features may be associated with concentration-dependent differences in drug localization.
Martin: After this publication, Kevinâ€™s collaborators felt that our fluorescent compound would be useful to the scientific community. We then took a step back to think about the commercialization potential of the compound (Lynxtag platform) and decided to patent the technology and start a new venture.
3. Elaborate on your start-up journey.
Martin: We have been very lucky in our journey up to this point but we tried to increase our probability of luck by attending the right events. Initially, the challenge was to get the mentality right. Going for business workshops and ILO helped us on the NRF POC Grant application.
We then encountered a very supportive community within NUS such as SMART and Nanocore who organized talks to exchange knowledge on how to navigate the POC application process. In addition, colleagues who had previously been successful with the grant applications were very willing to share knowledge and give advice. Furthermore, both of us are scientists with full time positions at the university and we did not have too much time to handle the business side of things. This pushed us to look for a Managing Director and that is where Mr. Theodore Tan came in. We met at the Technology Commercialization Forum organized by ILO/ NEC and he informed us that he was setting up a biotech incubator.Â
Kevin: Our early phase success has come mainly due to the great support that we received from NUS ILO. They were always there for us and were very proactive in connecting us to various players in the industry. Given our scientific background where we are accustomed to being very cautious when writing proposals, we had to switch our mindset to be a bit more optimistic when writing business proposals. ILO swiftly came in and provided sufficient coaching in this area. Going forward, I think the main obstacle will be getting the first revenue. Once we run out of the government grants, we will need to have revenue and/ or attract significant investment. We are in an incubator system so we are somewhat buffered, but at the end of the day we are selling a pure compound and its all comes down to whether the customers want our product and how much they are willing to pay for it.
Martin and Kevin seemed to have that right mixture of charisma, determination and product vision for start-up.
4. It has been found that as a result of starting oneâ€™s own business, entrepreneurs are caught up by situations such as work-life imbalances, high levels of work and family stress. From your personal standpoint as an entrepreneur, what have you gained out from entrepreneurship and how true do you relate to this claim?
Kevin: My journey with the company has been an exciting and very enlightening one. I now have insight into the law and business side of science, areas which I did not deal with previously. My work with BioLynx overlaps with my research and my lab uses the same fluorescent tags to solve various scientific problems.
As a result, I find that juggling the different hats has not been much of a stretch. When it comes to my personal life I believe that a good balance can be achieved through good time management and delegating tasks to the right people.
Martin: When it comes to career balance, I would say there are different kinds of academics. Early in my career, I spent a lot of time thinking about the fundamentals and details of chemistry. It would be difficult for faculty members like that to become an entrepreneur. We need to be a jack of all trades. Having a business may not necessarily do very much for such an academic career where one is expected to focus on one area and become an expert.
In my case, my interest on applied research has made it possible for my academic and business caps to merge quite nicely and it has been quite exciting to do this. Even now I have projects for undergraduates where the fundamental knowledge generated can be transferred to a technology. This has been made possible because we are in a fortuitous situation where high risk research work can be done in a university setting, the intellectual property transferred to the university and then licensed to a company. With respect to work-life balance, I try to delegate responsibilities. It is a matter of being smart in getting the right team together and not having to do everything yourself. Picking careers that you enjoy and not letting the work overwhelm you, makes things more manageable. We all need time to rest our minds and this is possible if you plan in advance.
5. The recent few years have emphasized on the importance for aspiring professionals in the biomedical sector to pursue a post-graduate education for better opportunities in the sector. Will you encourage aspiring entrepreneurs in the biomedical space to join in the educational pursuit?
Kevin: Company positions at the start up phase of a biotech company are very heterogeneous. A graduate degree is not necessary for all positions (Quality Assurance or Administrative roles, etc) and non-PhD holders may still have an important role to play. The more important thing is having a â€˜good job fitâ€™. In cases where an individual has strong passion but lacks an advanced degree, a company may mitigate risk by initially hiring via internships or providing a support structure such as attachment to a senior scientist.
Martin: Some postgraduate degrees train people to be very specialized in a particular area such that they canâ€™t be retrained easily, but it depends on the individual. I believe that the potential is already there before graduate studies and it all depends on how people are nurtured. Having an education which opens the mind and broadens an individualâ€™s thinking is more important in entrepreneurship. Flexibility and the ability to express yourself well, in addition to the humility to accept that you do not know everything, are most valuable characteristics in a start-up environment.
6. What is LynxTag Technology? What are your priorities for commercializing LynxTag Technology?
Martin: The LynxTag platform which is built on a trade secret coupled with medicinal chemistry and biological validation know-how, allows for the synthesis of an array of fluorescent tagged drugs with the same biological activity as the parent drugs. This will enable intracellular drug-cell interactions (i.e. uptake and localization) to be directly visualized and studied without the need for prohibitively expensive equipment. Existing lab equipment such as flow cytometers and fluorescent microscopes will suffice. Furthermore, the LynxTag platform is versatile enough to be applied to a wide range of drugs. By incorporating these fluorescent tagged compounds into existing laboratory protocols such as staining cancer cells, this technology would enable studies on drug resistance, localization and sensitivity to be done.
Kevin: Based on our work with drug-cell interaction studies in malaria, we have successfully developed two separate fluorescent tagged drugs; LynxTag-Chloroquine and LynxTag-Artemisinin. These can be rapidly deployed as Research Use Only kits in the front line of drug interaction studies. The availability of a simple platform to investigate drug resistance will spin off more drug resistance studies as this will be useful for laboratories engaged in various areas of research. The next phase of development is targeted towards the synthesis of anti-cancer, anti-viral and anti-bacterial fluorescent tagged drugs which represent the most urgent clinical concerns in the market.
7. If there's 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?
Martin: I think it is good that the university community is helping each other in various ways to encourage entrepreneurship which makes it easy to transfer technology to the market.
My advice to aspiring technopreneurs is to go ahead and do it without over-thinking things and to be willing to share their knowledge and experiences. Some people like to hold on to their ideas and not tell anyone, but we canâ€™t go at it alone. More often than not, collaborating with others leads to a bigger share of the pie.Â
Kevin: Based on our experience up to this stage, there is no better time to start a venture than now because the support structure for commercial research is readily available. The government is relatively generous at this stage and there is no telling how long this will last.
Having said that, aspiring entrepreneurs should be prepared to work very hard because it is not easy to satisfy customer needs. They should also be weary of the risk that will kick in at the revenue generation or expansion phase.
The investment environment in Singapore is still immature and needs a critical mass of successes before big venture capital firms from around the world are be attracted to make investments in Singapore.