Experts gathered at the 2023 Singapore Week of Innovation & Technology (SWITCH) to discuss what can be done to bridge the talent gap in the Biotech sector. Key takeaways included:
Why the biotechnology industry is facing a talent crunch, with a shortfall of 41 percent expected over the next decade.
How a strong core of local talent is critical to building a robust and comprehensive biotech ecosystem in Singapore.
Tools to help more academics make the leap to the biotech industry, like SGInnovate’s Helix Immersion Programme (HIP).
When it comes to biotech, breakthroughs in the lab are not an endpoint but one of the many milestones in the long process of delivering treatments to patients. At every stage of that journey, talent, whether in the form of Project Managers, Business Developers or Scientists, plays a crucial role.
“There is a bit of a gap when it comes to taking drugs from the lab to clinical trials to commercialisation,” acknowledged panel moderator, Mr Fabio La Mola, Partner at global consultancy firm Bain & Company. The panel discussion was held during the 2023 Singapore Week of Innovation & Technology (SWITCH) on nurturing growth in Southeast Asia’s biotech talent landscape.
Still, panellists concurred that there are ways to bridge the talent gap. Chief among them is training local talent to take up the mantle – including researchers.
(L to R) Moderator Mr Fabio La Mola, Partner, Bain & Company; Mr Jeffrey Lu, Chief Executive Officer & Co-Founder of Engine Biosciences; Mr Prem Mandalapu, Commercial General Manager of ASEAN at Cytiva; Dr Vanessa Ding, Deputy Director of Talent at SGInnovate; Dr Ho Wen Qi, Therapeutics Lead at ClavystBio.
Why the talent gap exists
Making the switch from lab to industry can be challenging. This is because information about prospects beyond the academic world may not always be easily accessible, said Dr Ho, who made the leap from academia to industry.
“The hardest part (for me) was knowing what’s out there,” she said. “When you’re in a lab or university setting, you don’t get the opportunity to see that there could be investment work or consulting work that could be done.”
In other words, bridging the talent gap also means bridging the information gap. But panellists pointed out that the problem could also be structural.
Insufficient funding for biotech companies causes them to tighten their belts and slow expansion, noted Dr Ding. This, in turn, means companies are looking to hire people who can “get the product to market as fast as they (can)”, edging out people who are less experienced.
“If I were to compare it to larger ecosystems, typically what you see is a mix of large and small companies where typically the large companies end up being the trainers,” said Mr La Mola.
The panellists acknowledged that Singapore lacked a big home-grown pharma industry. Instead, it has a growing industry of biotech startups and companies offering services adjacent to pharma that present less conventional training pathways.
“Education is one of the big things we need to think about,” said Dr Ding. “How do we seed in students a risk-taking appetite, agility in thinking, and (receptiveness towards) non-conventional career pathways?”
Sourcing for talent
Attracting overseas talent is a potential solution, but an incomplete one. “If we don’t start to nurture our local talent, we will lose the base of what we can build in Singapore,” said Dr Ding.
There is no lack of training options for those aspiring to join the biotech industry. In 2021, global biotechnology leader Cytiva opened an experience and learning lab (CELL) in Singapore. The lab provides study tours to tertiary education students and hands-on training on the latest bioprocessing techniques to researchers and bio-manufacturers looking to commercialise their technology.
“At Cytiva, we do our part to bridge the talent gap in the local biotech ecosystem. We work very closely with our customers to understand their requirements, and design the training based on their needs. To date, we’ve conducted over 120 training sessions for regional and global customers at CELL and our Centre of Excellence at Nanyang Polytechnic,” said Mr Mandalapu.
Realistically, however, different countries have different talent profiles. To capitalise on this, Engine Biosciences, a technology company pioneering network biomedicine, based its operations in San Francisco and Singapore.
“Part of our technology platform for drug discovery involves computational biology and machine learning,” said Mr Lu. “It also involves (experience in) molecular biology and cell culture in the labs to perform high throughput experiments.”
These are areas that Singapore is strong in, he said. Meanwhile, biomedical professionals in San Francisco have more regulatory expertise and are more experienced in taking drugs through clinical trials towards commercialisation.
Still, the consensus was that companies should take a progressive approach. “We should hire biotech talent based on their future ability, not on their past records,” said Dr Ding. “Even if they come from academia, it doesn’t mean that they’re fully academia – they can be creative and can still contribute to your company.”
Echoing Dr Ding, Mr La Mola shared his own experience of working with PhDs in life sciences, calling it a “fantastic experience” for him and the academics.
The question he then posed to the rest of the panellists was simple: How would they advise academics who wanted to move into industry but had hesitations?
Tools to move beyond the lab
Whether one is a researcher, consultant, investor, or corporate in the biotech field, one needs to have purpose, the panellists commented.
“I don’t think there (needs to be) a straight path to your career trajectory. As long as you have purpose, you should be able to find your way into the biotech industry,” said Dr Ding.
For those looking to move out of research and into industry, gaining experience in the real world will be paramount, Dr Ho noted. One suggestion was to follow up with panel speakers on LinkedIn after events to ask them questions and learn more about the opportunities available in the biotech industry.
For academics looking for more hands-on practice in industry, SGInnovate offers the Helix Immersion Programme (HIP). This one-year programme is an opportunity for researchers to gain on-the-job experience in industry-specific areas such as therapeutic project management, regulatory affairs, and manufacturing controls.
"It is a form of experiential learning," said Dr Ding. "First-hand experience will open doors to an entire community and network that can enrich researchers’ perspectives. Leveraging one’s unique lab experiences and skillsets is crucial when transitioning into the biotech industry."
Having a scientific background is a plus point, added Dr Ho.
“I was able to critically assess technology and speak the language of innovators, developing a rapport with them,” she said, adding that this was helpful for her own transition.
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