The Asia-Pacific region is seeing healthy growth of startups across sectors like fintech, automation, and AI-powered drug discovery, according to a 2022 report by KPMG. However, compared to the start-up scene in North America, there is still little access to large capital funding and talent for the Asia-Pacific biotech industry. GEN spoke to organizers and winners of innovation challenges to find out how contests can bridge this gap.

Hello Tomorrow was started a decade ago in Paris by a group of individuals who are convinced that science has the potential to change the world for the better. The organization, which supports start-ups in the areas of new materials, agriculture, and medical biotechnology, has since expanded to other parts of the world, including the Asia-Pacific region.

“The deep tech scene in Asia-Pacific is nascent compared to some other parts of the world like North America and Europe. Our Asia Pacific hub, headquartered in Singapore, is trying to grow the regional ecosystem by connecting startups, investors, corporations, and regulators,” says Chee Yung Thye, associate director, Hello Tomorrow Asia Pacific.

“Our challenge is a flagship event where we gather the most promising innovations emerging from the region and give them a platform to showcase their ideas.” Thye adds that there are multiple ways an innovation challenge like the organization’s benefits development in the region. “Winners receive cash funding that helps grow their business. Our regional winners get fast-tracked to the global stage for our Global Challenge, where they gain opportunities to access international funds to scale their companies. For instance, our previous finalists over the last eight years have gone on to collectively raise USD 3 billion in funding,” he explains.

Distinct aspect

A distinct aspect of Hello Tomorrow Asia Pacific is its focus on supporting solutions for the region. “Our organization is about creating impact. We believe that some of the world’s toughest challenges need hard science solutions, and we champion start-ups that want to bring these scientific innovations to the market. There are problems and solutions unique to the Asia Pacific region, and start-up competitions with a regional focus build support for this type of work,” says Thye.

One Hello Tomorrow beneficiary is Arbele, a biotech company founded in 2016 with its R&D center in Hong Kong. The company develops diagnostic platforms and immunotherapy to provide early intervention and treatment for people with gastrointestinal cancers. Diana Hay, PhD, Arbele’s executive director, intellectual property and business development, says that participating in the Hello Tomorrow Asia Pacific competition provided the start-up with visibility and networking opportunities with investors.

“We also received quality feedback on our products and pitches from judges and learned from other outstanding teams, which motivated us to eventually join the Deep Tech Pioneers program,” she says.

Diana Hay, PhD, executive director, intellectual property and business development at Arbele, pitching during Hello Tomorrow’s competition. [Hello Tomorrow]

Hello Tomorrow’s Deep Tech Pioneers program is a community of the best deep tech start-ups from across challenges in different parts of the world. The program provides support with hiring, funding, and business opportunities.

“This year in September, we will be hosting our APAC Investor Day for the first time. This is an opportunity for investors and start-up founders who have shared interest in the Asia-Pacific region to have one-to-one meetings to develop collaborations,”  Thye says. “I strongly encourage researchers interested about science-entrepreneurship to check out the various events we are organizing.”

Helping startups scale up their manufacturing

The winners of Cytiva’s Southeast Asia BioChallenge contest are selected based on five criteria, including future business impact. Winners enjoy up to SGD 200,000 of services such as cell engineering and purification solutions to help them overcome obstacles and scale up their manufacturing. The contest began in 2018, and South Korea, Australia and New Zealand now host their own iterations of it, notes Prem Mandalapu, general manager, commercial, Southeast Asia, at Cytiva.

“These contests have [helped] our winners gather momentum to success,” Mandalapu says. “For instance, Genexine has risen to become a publicly traded company and the face of K-bio since winning South Korean BioChallenge in 2018. Winner of the ANZ BioChallenge, VivaZome, has recently been awarded an AUD 3 million grant from the Australian Government for a three-year project on customized exosomes for regenerative medicine.  We wanted to bring this model to Southeast Asia and translate useful technologies into the market.”

“It is expensive for start-ups to invest in equipment and infrastructure, yet investors want to see potential for scalable manufacturing from start-ups. We observe that many of the ASEAN-based start-ups need more support when it comes to scalability and connecting them to the appropriate service providers. This is an area where Cytiva can make a difference,” adds Mandalapu.

At the contests, finalists delivered 30-minute pitches to present their technology. Cytiva’s panel of judges, who include regional industry leaders and global in-house scientists, encouraged the contestants to think critically about their processes—for example, whether their methodology is workable, how are they addressing current challenges, and how they would like to tap Cytiva’s technology and consultation services to achieve their objectives.

In the inaugural Southeast Asia BioChallenge, BetaLife, a Singapore-based start-up developing beta cells from human induced pluripotent stem cells for diabetes applications, took first place. “As a small company, we are always looking for new business opportunities and to raise funds. In our work, we use reagents from Cytiva, and when we saw the BioChallenge competition we knew that winning it could benefit us,” says Adrian Teo, co-founder and consultant of BetaLife Pte Ltd.

Kittinop Kittirotruji, co-founder of BGF Plantrix, a start-up in Thailand manufacturing growth factors, says that winning the second runner-up in Cytiva’s challenge gave the company confidence in the potential of its products and pushed it toward the goal of commercialization. He adds that it is difficult for biotech start-ups in the Asia-Pacific region to break into industrial-scale production without support from corporations. “Our company benefited from Cytiva’s advice, especially to improve our downstream production development process.”

This view is echoed by Mandalapu, who says, “The biotech industry in Southeast Asia is in its early stage of development, and we believe that having more such competitions would benefit the region. It helps to connect start-ups to industry partners with knowledge, and also lets the start-ups know that they are not alone in their journey.”

Teo adds that winning Cytiva’s BioChallenge helped to build the credentials of BetaLife, especially because investors know that Cytiva is an established science company. “In the United States, there are many competitions for start-ups to learn how to pitch and attract investors. The BioChallenge is a great platform to motivate scientists working in labs to consider bringing their work to market and use this opportunity to grow into larger entities.”

Innovations benefit patients and the economy

Syncricity is a start-up based in Sydney, Australia, developing neural implants to alleviate spasticity and pain in patients suffering from cerebral palsy or trauma as a result of an accident. John McKeown, CTO of Syncricity, says that while scientific research may happen without innovation challenges, it would not be as targeted towards users, and thus would not do as much to benefit patients.

“Scientifically innovative ideas by themselves are not immediately valuable. It’s only when they are turned into a tangible reality for users and patients by the injection of effort and money in an intelligent way that they realize value,” adds McKeown. “Innovation challenges and the associated prizes, in the current funding environment, are the essential lifeblood of early-stage innovations. It bridges the early funding chasm until investment from ‘patient money’ can be gained. Asia Pacific in this sense needs these challenges even more than, say North America, where the risk appetite of investors is greater.”

Philip Davy (middle), from Braizon Therapeutics, Antonio Perfecto (left) from Gense, and Wan Chunfeng (right) from Solv8. [Hello Tomorrow]

Syncricity won the 2022 Morgans Financial National Bionics Innovation Prize and used the prize money to develop its electrode concept and secure intellectual property while getting connected with a very supportive community working on bionics in Queensland, Australia.

Hay believes that innovation challenges are a great platform for startups, entrepreneurs, and innovators to showcase their ideas, products, and services. They help to promote a culture of innovation within the Asia Pacific region and attract talented participants to improve collaborations and solve challenges pertinent to the region.

“On a broader scale, promoting problem-solving and building a start-up ecosystem will encourage continuous innovation and sustained development of the biotech industry,” she says. “This will in turn attract investments to this region, drive economic growth, and improve the quality of life for people living in Asia Pacific.”

Andy Tay, PhD, is a freelance-writer for GEN.

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