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Reconciling Singapore's deep-tech agenda with mature life sciences sector

Howard Califano, SMART Innovation Centre Director, shares his thoughts in this Asian Scientist story

Excerpts from Asian Scientist

With the Singapore's government launch of a new program called AI Singapore, which has a US$110 million war chest at its disposal to boost the nation’s AI capabilities; plus a committed US$73 million in a venture capital fund via SPRING Singapore to fund deep tech start-ups; and a Data Science Consortium to drive research in the field, all guns are blazing to give this sector a boost.


In fact, "Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba recently announced plans to establish its first international research hub in the city-state. The hub, slated to open in the central business district in 2018, is part of a US$15 billion initiative to drive Alibaba’s future growth.


These developments seem to suggest that datasets and robots have taken the front seat in Singapore, but do they signal the demise of drug discovery and basic research?


“Clearly there’s a growing emphasis and excitement over AI and big data,” says Howard Califano, director of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) Innovation Centre. “But these are actually platform technologies that are really enabling… they cut across a lot of application areas. And clearly one of those areas is life sciences.”


Califano has a front-row seat to Singapore’s R&D scene: the Innovation Centre he heads runs grant programs to help researchers commercialize their technologies. Of the nearly 200 applications the Centre receives every year, 60 percent are medical- and healthcare-related—a figure that has remained consistent over time.


“I see about the same number of [these applications] as I did five years ago, so I don’t think it’s money moving away from one area into another,” Califano says. “The pie is definitely getting bigger.” So if interest and funding are not zero-sum games, perhaps describing the trend towards deep tech as a shift in research priorities isn’t quite apt.


An expansion in focus—one that’s a necessary adaptation to the changing climate—might be a more accurate description. “I think you have to go into these new areas to stay competitive,” says Califano, who was formerly CEO of Johns Hopkins Singapore and The Johns Hopkins-NUH International Medical Centre in Singapore.


“There are a lot of interesting studies using genomic data, big data and large patient population groups going on right now, and it’s very important to dig down. If you don’t know these areas, you aren’t going to be competitive in the life sciences.” "


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