DURING the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, hospitals were able to quickly and accurately identify infected patients thanks to local firm AITbiotech.
AITbiotech was the first firm in South-east Asia to manufacture real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays.
Prior to PCR technology, diagnostic tests relied either on microbiology or antibodies, which were not as efficient and accurate.
The PCR technology, however, relies on unique sections in the DNA of pathogens.
During tests, the DNA of the sample is put through a heating and cooling process which causes the DNA to unravel.
A synthetic DNA fragment that mirrors the unique sections of pathogen DNA then binds to the genome of the pathogen if it is present.
A fluorescent probe that was present in the synthetic fragment is released when it binds to the pathogen and is detected by the equipment.
AITbiotech manufactures kits that use this technology to detect infectious diseases and sexually transmitted diseases with 99.89 per cent accuracy. It recently developed two kits that can detect cancer gene mutation. They will be launched this month.
AITbiotech was set up in 2008, but its founder Mr Alex Thian, 54, actually brought in the technology long ago. He started a distribution company in 1992 with his wife while running his law firm.
This distribution company brought in Sars diagnostic kits from Germany during the 2003 Sars crisis and distributed them to hospitals.
In 2006, however, they sold the distribution company to a multinational corporation.
Mr Thian realised that the products were very expensive and decided to use the knowledge he had obtained from distributing the products to start his own company in 2008.
The H1N1 diagnostic kits were the first licence the firm received from A*Star. The company now produces 24 diagnostic kits.
The licences for one-third of these came from A*Star, another third from other research institutes like NUS and Singhealth as well as some from overseas, and the remainder from AITbiotech’s research and development.
The whole journey of obtaining licences, conducting further trials as well as manufacturing and sales was a costly one.
Mr Thian had a start-up capital of $500,000, and has since put in a few million dollars.
The machines involved could cost as much as the price of an HDB flat, but even more money is required to push the products into other markets.
“We’re now trying to enter China, but it’s going to take me two whole years to launch one diagnostic kit there; trying to launch them simultaneously will cost me millions of dollars.
“Launching the product requires conducting trials, submitting papers and handling the registration which are all very expensive”, said Mr Thian.
However, AITbiotech has received help from Spring Singapore in the form of three grants – one for product development, one to support expansion overseas and another to support a collaboration with leading diagnostic company Becton Dickinson.
All these have allowed it to expand from a small compound in Ayer Rajah with a staff of three to more than 50 in a compound of almost 10,000 sq ft in Science Park 1.
But Mr Thian said AITbiotech is expanding fast and looking for additional space. Its venture business division will move to a new office in Ayer Rajah in May.
The firm’s revenue was about $8 million last year, and a minimum of 25 per cent growth is expected this year.
This success, however, was only after his many attempts at starting businesses. He calls himself a “serial entrepreneur” and has started 15 to 20 firms.
He mostly focused on the IT and medical technology sectors, but has also invested in a beach club and a company selling organic products.
Some succeeded but some failed. At one point, he was unemployed and stayed home to take care of his four children.
He finally succeeded with AITbiotech, and was given a grant by Spring Singapore to commercialise the technology and help other SMEs emulate the success.
AITbiotech has greater plans for the future as well. Its products are sold in all the Asean countries as well as a few European countries, but plans are under way to expand to Australia, New Zealand and North America.
This is facilitated by the firm’s ISO13485 certification for manufacturing molecular diagnostics products in 2012, which was critical for global registration of its products.
Mr Thian added: “I want to further enhance my R&D capabilities to come up with more products as well as become a global player in molecular diagnostics.”
But this is “easier said than done because you need a lot of additional investment as well as people with knowledge and experience”, he said.
“Our biggest challenge is finding people who have both the technical and business knowledge.
“Molecular diagnostics is a very new industry in Singapore and there are very few companies in this sector. This is a problem not just for Singapore but for the whole of Asia and we have to recruit from the US or Europe.”
AITbiotech currently has about a dozen vacant positions.Go back