Dr Ong Siew Hwa discusses about her company Acumen, Entrepreneurship and winning the Spirit of Enterprise award 2017

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The Spirit of Enterprise (SOE) Awards is an annual, national award that honors and recognizes Singapore’s local entrepreneurs’ achievements. Honourees represent the pinnacle of contribution towards the economic development of Singapore. Since its inception, the SOE Awards has recognized a total of 527 honorees. Some of their notable past honorees include entrepreneurs from Achieve Group, Activiste Pte Ltd, AIBI, Bengwan Solo Pte Ltd, Bioskin, Biomax Technologies, Charles & Keith, Cordlife to name a few.

Out of the hundreds of entrepreneurs nominated this year, 32 outstanding entrepreneurs were selected as the winners of this prestigious award. The awards were conferred by guest-of-honor Dr Koh Poh Koon, Senior Minister of State, Ministry Of Trade & Industry And National Development at the SOE Awards Ceremony at Mandarin Orchard Hotel on 30th October 2017.

The following article was an interview by SOE student interviewer, Mr Larry Loo Sai Weng for the nomination of Dr Ong Siew Hwa, for the Spirit of Enterprise (SOE) Award 2017

Dr Ong Siew Hwa (centre) receiving the SOE Award from Dr Koh Poh Koon, Senior Minister of State, Ministry Of Trade & Industry And National Development Photo Courtesy: Mr Allan Lee

What is the nature of your business?

Dr Ong Siew Hwa

I am the CEO of Acumen research which is a contract research organization (CRO) that also develops proprietary technology in molecular diagnostic tests. Increasingly, biopharma companies outsource certain parts of their workflow to the CROs and by doing that, it greatly simplifies their work and it also translates into a lot of cost savings for the biopharma companies. Some of the outsourced work we have done included gene expression profiling for drug testing and performing cell- or tissue-based assays for identifying active ingredients for companies developing skincare products. Majority of our clients are biotech and pharma companies, hospitals and other research laboratories.

When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

I did my Ph.D. in Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) in 1995-2000 and spent 4 years working as a postdoctoral fellow in Canada. I came back to Singapore and re-joined IMCB as an assistant professor and adjunct assistant professor at NUS Faculty of Medicine, researching on cancer signal transduction. In 2007, I joined Eli Lily as a senior research scientist in the US where I learnt about pharmaceutical R&D and doing business in the biomedical industry. In 2008, I came back to Singapore to set up the Lilly Singapore Centre for Drug Discovery. During my years as a scientist, I published a total of 17 papers and I always felt that the research I was doing had potential to be very useful to patients in the real world. I was also heavily influenced by my PhD co-mentor, Dr Joseph Schlessinger, who co-founded 3 successful biotechnology companies (SUGEN, Plexxikon, Kolltan Pharmaceuticals). SUGEN was later acquired by Pharmacia & Upjohn for $650 million in 1999 and developed Sunitinib (SU11248) which was later approved by the FDA for the treatment of renal cell carcinoma (RCC) and imatinib-resistant gastrointestinal stroma tumor (GIST) in 2006. That was when I realized basic research can really result in new, breakthrough drugs can be so beneficial to cancer patients refractile to conventional therapies. I was also heavily influenced by my father, who was an entrepreneur in the construction industry.

Drawing inspiration from them, I decided to set up Acumen Research in 2010.

What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry? What does Acumen Research do?

The reason why I chose to do business in the science industry is because by developing innovative tests/products, we would be able to improve the lives of patients. In Acumen Research, we are focused on developing molecular diagnostic tests for Sepsis. Sepsis is an emergency, life-threatening illness that is caused by the body’s own response to infections. In 2012, we launched our own R&D in Sepsis biomarkers and developed the first-in-kind Sepsis test that can be used to rapidly detect the occurrence of Sepsis through gene expression profiling of patients’ immune cells. This method is far superior to the outdated method of trying to grow the bacteria from blood drawn from patients in the clinical microbiology laboratory. With our test, we are able to significantly improve and save lives of patients.

How did you put together all the resources needed to start your business? For example: getting the start-up capital, hiring staff, doing sales and marketing, advertising, etc.

In the earlier days before we have a critical mass of biotech and medtech companies in our industry, it was very hard to get started. The biomedical research scene in Singapore was still in its infancy and there were not many people I could seek advice from. However, one advantage I had was that I had gained a lot of industry experience when I first started Acumen Research, as I worked previously at Eli Lilly, which is a highly innovative, global pharmaceutical company. Along with the industry experience, I have made many valuable contacts in the biopharma industry. Hence, I had a large network of friends whom I can tap on for advice on business. Of course, I also had international contacts such as Dr. Joseph Schlessinger and many former colleagues from Eli Lilly.

 

What are some interesting stories you have about your first few customers/first few years in business?

I have 2 examples to share. When I first started out, to increase revenue streams, I had also included in the company services – consultancy in technology development and commercialization, eg. my consultancy projects included writing business plans for other entrepreneurs. I did several successful projects and had one unpleasant experience too. On one occasion, upon completion of one assignment, the client insisted that my business plan was not that good and that he would not be starting his business, and he refused to pay up. However, I found out much later that he did start a company based on the business plan I wrote.

Another example is a supplier whose product was not consistent in its performance; the first batch of product worked but subsequent batch did not. We refused to make payment for the second batch but they said the work was already done and anyway we had government grants for part of our work. I vehemently disagreed with them and said that I have a responsibility to safeguard the taxpayers’ money.

 

What is your company vision and mission? How do you convey these to your company staff and team members?

The mission of Acumen Research is to develop innovative diagnostic tests, products and services to improve and save the lives of patients. We are using advanced science and technology to create novel solutions to address pressing medical problems. I have constantly told my staff that we are doing can directly save the lives of many patients and they fully appreciate the impact of the work they are doing.

What are some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business? How did you overcome these challenges? Please share some specific examples of the action you took to overcome the challenges.

One of the challenges I faced early in my business was the hiring of qualified staffs. The experienced people will require high salaries. As a young startup back then, we were unable to offer them the salary they expected. Thus, we could only make do with fresh graduates and supervise them closely, and train them extensively.

In fact, majority of our early staffs were interns who decided to stay on as permanent staff after completing their final year projects. The other challenge was trying to find funding to sustain our early work. It becomes a chicken-and-egg problem whereby many investors would invest in technologies that were more ready prototypes alongside seasoned management team. However, without sufficient funding in the first place, it was very hard to develop the prototypes and hire highly experienced people.

What are some of your proudest business achievements to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?

One of my proudest achievements is that we developed a first-in-kind Sepsis diagnostic test that can diagnose Sepsis earlier, as well as more rapidly and accurately. It was invented, developed and manufactured in Singapore. We have validated the test in around 450 patients in Singapore and we have also licensed this technology to other companies to speed up the process of commercialization. In this case, we are able to help improve the lives of sepsis patients.

This is very exciting because we see the realization of the genetic revolution. Sixty years ago, the DNA double helix structure was discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick. With the advent of this foundational discovery, many new frontiers of technologies have been broken, eg. genome-wide microarrays, real-time PCR, next-generation sequencing. I hope we will be able to leverage such new technologies to create a pipeline of break-through products and services that can save and improve patients’ lives.

What do you see for your business in the next 5 years, and does it include any plans for expansion?

In the next 5 years, I intend to expand into clinical testing, personalized medicine and predictive healthcare. Next generation testing services that can provide greater insights for doctors are needed all over the world.

What makes an effective leader and how do you retain talented staffs?

A truly effective leader always sets a good example to the staff. For example, if you, as a leader is always late for meeting, then you cannot expect your staff to be on time. The leader must lead by example. Another trait of an effective leader is credibility. He or she has to honour his/her words. Courage is also very important because the staff look up to the leader for inspiration. The leader has to have the courage to try out new things, fight the battles and be at the forefront of the situation.

A good way of retaining good staff is to constantly offer them opportunities to learn and grow. In fact, 2 of our previous staff had gone on to become entrepreneurs in their own rights and became quite successful at that. I would give salary increase based on matching the industry standards as I believe financial rewards are a practical necessity, besides meaning in the work and opportunities for development.

How do you think your business has made a positive impact or contribute to the community that you serve?

In the early years of Acumen Research, we have also conducted community programs such as the Science Explorers’ Camp for children from families of low socio-economic norm, during the school holidays. We worked extensively with family centres, identified children from low-income families and invited them to our Science Explorers’ Camp to learn more about doing interesting science experiments.

I also served as a volunteer at the BioSingapore, which is an organization that is focused on key initiatives to develop Singapore’s life science ecosystem. As chairman of BioSingapore, I initiated the BioSingapore Ministerial Dialogue Series. We had conducted an industry dialogue with Minister for Manpower, Mr Lim Swee Say in January 2016, entitled “Winning the Talent Race” to discuss how Singapore can rise up to these challenges in the face of fierce global competition in the biomedical industry. In September 2016, I have also chaired the 2nd Ministerial Dialogue “Biomedical Sciences Industry into SG100” with Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, Dr. Koh Poh Koon to discuss a range of topics, including opportunities and challenges in the biomedical industry. In these dialogues sessions, with the whitepapers we would write and share to relevant stake-holders, we hope to contribute and pay forward in building a resilient biomedical community, and robust ecosystem in Singapore, enabling high-value economic growth and job creation.

 

With the changes in the market today, do you think it has become harder or easier to succeed in business? Why do you say so?

I would say the awareness and interest by stake-holders and entrepreneurs are stronger. This has translated to increase in startup funding and support in the form of incubators and accelerators. In that context, it is becoming a bit easier to start a new technology venture. However, I would like to emphasize that the reason for promoting the startup culture has to be correct in the first place, ie. there are good intellectual property and market opportunities. Otherwise, it would be easy to start, but difficult to sustain. For example, if say some entrepreneurs started medtech or biotech companies because it is an “in” thing, then they may not succeed. A common denominator in technology entrepreneurs is the passion for the technology and innovation, coupled to the desire to solve real-life problems. Those who succeed often have devoted many years of his or her life into it; they do not start with aim of a lucrative buyout of the company but that happened as a consequence of an excellent product needed by a huge market.

What does it mean to have spirit of enterprise?

I feel having the spirit of enterprise means that one is starting a new business venture that serves a purpose in solving important problems. It is also the spirit of creating something valuable and useful when none of anything similar existed before; it involves being able to see what other people can’t see (ie. being ahead of the curve) and such a vision finally makes a significant contribution to the world.

 

What advice would you give young people who want to start their own business?

I would like to give 4 pieces of advice to young people who intend to start their own business:

(1) It’s important to dream big and yet both feet firm on the ground.

(2) Be brave, always try to find ways to solve the problems

(3) Try to accumulate relevant domain knowledge and experience before embarking on your entrepreneurial journey. It’s also important to be street-smart, which is about common sense and wisdom that come from experience. The combination of both deep domain knowledge and street-smarts could be very powerful.