Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers: Maoi Arroyo

Biologist by training and entrepreneur by spirit, Maoi Arroyo aspires to build a strong biotechnology ecosystem in the Philippines.

Maoi Arroyo
Ignite Impact Fund

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AsianScientist (Jul. 31, 2020) – Ask a child to picture a scientist and they’ll probably imagine someone in a white lab coat, peering down a microscope or at a rack of test tubes. However, that’s only half the picture. More and more scientists are taking steps beyond the lab, commercializing their research to pioneer new industries and impact lives at the same time.

But how exactly do you go from the lab to the real world? That was the question on Maoi Arroyo’s mind when she founded Hybridigm, the first biotechnology consulting firm in the Philippines. Hybridigm works as a match-making platform, connecting scientists and their disruptive biotechnologies with entrepreneurs or businesses, and as a training service.

To date, the firm has trained over 17,000 researchers and entrepreneurs from the best universities in the Philippines, translating into jobs and wealth for the country’s most under-privileged communities. Hybridigm has also partnered with the Philippine government to develop the Technology Transfer Act of 2009 that has since facilitated US$3.5 million in biotech investments.

In 2018, Arroyo founded the Ignite Impact Fund, a fund focused on eradicating income and access poverty in the Philippines by investing in socially impactful startups. The fund’s philosophy centres around supporting inclusive and sustainable business models that benefit the poorest.

Arroyo’s achievements have earned her a place on the global spotlight. In 2020, she was the only Philippines representative at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Sitting down with Asian Scientist Magazine, Arroyo recounts her journey and motivations in strengthening biotechnology entrepreneurship in the Philippines.

  1. How did you make the leap from being a biologist to starting Hybridigm?
  2. It was partially necessity and partially a great dream of mine. I wanted to really understand the natural world, but at the same time I realized during college that I was tired of innovations just getting stuck in bound theses found in university libraries. I wanted to actually help the Filipino people, because I feel like when you do, you help the world. After I graduated, I realized I just didn’t have it in me to be around test tubes for the rest of my life.

    I tried to look for something that would combine my two great loves: money and biology, so I started Hybridigm. It’s a common misconception that when I started Hybridigm that I wanted to turn scientists into entrepreneurs. But all I want them is to pass the baton of scientific literacy to entrepreneurs so that they can focus on their research.

  3. Can you share with us your most significant achievement as a biotech investor and share with us why they were significant?
  4. The most important thing that we did was that we helped build an enabling environment for life science-based startups to flourish. We helped write the Tech Transfer Act of 2009, which allowed Filipino scientists from state universities to commercialize. It brought a lot of visibility to existing life science-based businesses, and it gave students in the life sciences an alternate career path aside from just medicine.

    I’m also very proud of building an ecosystem consisting of the people we trained at Hybridigm. We’ve seen our people move on to working in policy, in big corporate settings, and become entrepreneurs of their own.

  5. Given the COVID-19 situation, there’s been a renewed focus on biotech innovations like antibody drugs and vaccines. How can investors and the wider public be convinced that biotech is worth investing in even after the pandemic?
  6. Interest in medical biotechnology ebbs and flows. As soon as the emergency is over, human beings tend to forget about it. But it’s always a good idea to invest in vaccines.

    If you look at what makes our communities more resilient in a crisis, it’s preventive healthcare. What kind of innovations can we make such that people don’t have to go to the hospital? On the industrial side, wouldn’t it be great if you could have biomaterials that repel viruses? Or a biosensor that lights up if something is covered in bacteria?

  7. How can investing in biotech benefit developing yet extremely biodiverse countries like the Philippines?
  8. I think by harnessing our biodiversity properly, we can be more resilient. You can make graphene—which goes for $200 per gram—from coconut shells, benefitting the poorest coconut farmers who live on a $1 a day.

    To illustrate, we can invest in processing to get higher value ingredients, like glycerol from coconut oil and bio-ethanol from our algae. I think it’s really just a matter of having people with patient capital and the vision to see it through. That’s partially why I started Ignite Impact Fund and work as its principal.

    Maoi Arroyo at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last January 2020.
    Photo credit: Maoi Arroyo

  9. What do you think are the opportunities and challenges of biotech entrepreneurship in the Philippines? And how can those challenges be overcome?
  10. The biggest problem is philosophy. Filipinos need to invest more in the Philippines. I’m talking about investing in smallholder farmers, or really unsexy things like rice mills.

    We need to be making investments in key life science-based startups. I actually believe that investing in innovative startups in the Philippines will prove that investing in the Philippines is a good idea not just to foreign investors but to ourselves. Lots of people say the grass is greener elsewhere and you migrate because that’s where the jobs are, but I think the grass is greener where you water it.

  11. As a long time biotech entrepreneur, what recent trends and innovations are you most excited about and why?
  12. We want to repurpose some technologies and make them cheaper. For example, we’ve got biodegradable plastic, but the Philippines is still the third largest plastic polluter in the world. The moment biodegradable plastic becomes cheaper than regular plastic, everybody will stop using regular plastic. So I hope that’s where we’re going.

  13. Do you have any advice for young people in Asia who would like to venture into bio entrepreneurship?
  14. Innovation is about trying to make a difference. If you want to change the world, science cannot stay within the confines of the ivory towers of universities. Maybe you won’t win a Nobel Prize, but you will taste what it is to make a difference, a tangible, measurable impact in your country and in other people’s lives.

    If you don’t want to become an entrepreneur because it’s too risky, then become an investor and invest in crazy people who don’t think it’s risky. And if you don’t want to become an investor, then work in a big company where you will eventually buy those startups. Be a part of that ecosystem.

This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers. Click here to read other articles in the series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Maoi Arroyo.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jacklin has recently graduated with a Masters in physics at the University of Manchester. With a life-long passion for writing and science communication, she's now interning with Asian Scientist Magazine. Jacklin plans to pursue science journalism as her future career.

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