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Understanding Singapore’s biotech talent shortage

 

Thu, 01/19/2023 - 12:00

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SGInnovate’s latest whitepaper, Bridging the Talent Gaps in Singapore’s Biotech Sector, explores the manpower challenges facing the industry. Here, we dive into where these gaps are, and potential solutions to grow the biotech talent ecosystem that have been identified. 

Biotech talent is in short supply. Globally, a third of C-suite and human capital leaders in the industry say that talent scarcity is a major pain point for the sector, according to Randstad Sourceright’s 2022 life sciences and pharmaceuticals talent trends report. 

 

A similar situation is taking shape in Singapore. Like other biotech hubs around the world, companies here in both pre-clinical and clinical development phases are experiencing a talent bottleneck, including in functions such as research and development (R&D), production, regulatory affairs and business management. 

 

For instance, there is a lack of researchers proficient with artificial intelligence and machine learning skills in production – where these technologies accelerate drug discovery and development by quickly analysing enormous amounts of data to improve success rates. 

 

While the increasing manpower shortfall is an indication of industry growth, and a positive sign that Singapore’s biotech sector is growing at pace – these manpower gaps will pose critical challenges for the industry if not addressed.  

 

To alleviate the sector’s talent shortage, long-term strategies that enable the expansion of talent pipelines and facilitate training opportunities are vital.

 

Pinpointing talent gaps and challenges

The biotech talent squeeze affects companies at both the pre-clinical and clinical phases.  

 

In the pre-clinical stage, companies conduct preliminary studies in areas such as efficacy, toxicity and pharmacokinetics so that assets can progress to the clinical phase. In Singapore, most companies outsource these tasks to contract research organisations (CROs), allowing them to maintain a lean structure, but face challenges navigating the shortage of talent able to manage these outsourced functions. The limited number of CROs based here further exacerbates the issue – with fewer CROs to train junior managers to oversee the drug development process, the development of raw talent graduating from universities is further restricted. 

 

In the pre-clinical phase, it is important for stakeholders to provide targeted training opportunities that allow budding talent to build the relevant skill sets. This could involve relevant public sector bodies encouraging pre-clinical CROs to set up locally by offering financial incentives to minimise their operational risks.

Additionally, as biotech companies move towards clinical trials and asset commercialisation, they are finding it hard to recruit professionals with both scientific and business acumen – quantitative scientists who have deep insights into biology and know how to scale up production. 

 

At this stage, regulatory affairs experts here also require more opportunities to prepare and develop full dossiers for local authorities, as it is common practice for companies to distribute completed ones from their US or European headquarters.  

 

To alleviate these challenges and strengthen talent pipelines, there are a growing number of programmes and initiatives available to prepare biotech talent at each stage of professional development. These include training schemes and mentorships that provide industry experience to professionals.  

 

More importantly, there must be sustained collaboration between key stakeholders across the ecosystem to ensure the long-term effectiveness of these programmes. 

 

Clearing roadblocks to implementation

With a pressing need for more talent, SGInnovate’s latest whitepaper ‘Bridging the Talent Gaps in Singapore’s Biotech Sector’ identifies a few ways to develop talent across the two phases of clinical development. 

 

In the pre-clinical phase, it is important for stakeholders to provide targeted training opportunities that allow budding talent to build the relevant skill sets. This could involve relevant public sector bodies encouraging pre-clinical CROs to set up locally by offering financial incentives to minimise their operational risks. With more CROs, the training of junior- and manager-level talent to manage the outsourcing of experiments in pre-clinical settings can be scaled up. 

 

Biotech companies with overseas branches can also send experienced juniors on rotations and secondments to expand their perspectives in a different environment. If their finances are in good shape, startups can even incentivise talent to relocate to Singapore. The injection of experience could drive the company’s growth, as well as groom the next generation of biotech talent. 

 

When it comes to the clinical phase, expanding training at all levels is necessary to support the expected growth in the number of clinical companies. 

 

One potential path for Singapore is to incentivise biotech companies, where numbers allow, to conduct Phase II and III clinical trials locally, providing a platform for professionals here to gain exposure to industry-level operations.  

 

Another option is to remotely facilitate trials in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly for local or overseas biotech companies that are targeting this market. This builds on Singapore’s strong network of industry leaders and access to high-quality data. 

 

By fostering an environment that continuously develops talent and generates opportunities, Singapore will be able to grow its biotech sector in a sustainable way. With a cycle of talent to power the industry, the wider ecosystem is better primed for innovation and commercial development. 

 

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Download Bridging the Talent Gaps in Singapore’s Biotech Sector to get more insights on Singapore’s biotech landscape, key challenges faced and how companies are working to address the talent shortage. 

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