AsianScientist (May. 04, 2022)– It is no secret that building a startup and turning it into a successful venture is a daunting task that requires a lot of grit and a deep passion to build something that can change the way we live. The ever-growing biotech startup scene is now quickly paving the way to produce more innovative forms of drug treatments, diagnostic tools and devices to tackle various diseases such as cancer and COVID-19, and complex issues like antibiotic resistance.
With the biotech startup landscape rapidly expanding in Asia, there is a major powerhouse in Singapore creating an enabling space for up-and-coming projects and startups to begin their journey in establishing themselves.
NSG BioLabs is a co-working laboratory and office space located on Biopolis Road in Singapore. Founded by Daphne Teo in late 2019, the biosafety level-2 (BSL-2) compliant labs are fully equipped with the equipment, tools and reagents needed for start-ups to immediately begin their research and development. The growth and development of NSG BioLabs itself is a culmination of Teo’s educational background and interest in science as well as her experience working in investment banking and real estate.
Born in Singapore, Teo, from a very young age held a deep fascination and love of science. This eventually led her to pursue her bachelor’s degree in engineering at Purdue University and a master’s in engineering at Stanford University. Then taking a rather unusual route, she began working as an investment banker in Singapore and Hong Kong. Soon after, she helped her family real estate business secure investment and develop real estate projects across Southeast Asia and North America. While all of this helped Teo acquire leadership and management skills, her heart longed for science.
“Within a couple of years we had exited on a real estate project and, you know, we were in a good place for me to pursue whatever I wanted. And, at that point in time, I had wanted to do something that was impactful to the world,” said Teo. That opportunity landed in Teo’s lap when the founders of Engine Biosciences, a company focused on using machine learning and CRISPR to uncover gene interactions as potential targets for drug development, approached her to help start their business in Singapore. “With my science and engineering background, I thought it was quite apt, going back to what I had studied back in college.”
Joining them as a co-founder, she realized very quickly that a major hurdle faced by the company was finding the necessary physical space and laboratory equipment. The cost of building a full-sized lab and purchasing equipment was very high – so much that it could eat up a large chunk of capital that the company had. That’s when the Eureka moment happened for Teo! She decided to create NSG BioLabs to provide an easily accessible, professionally-managed shared lab space with all the necessities available, so companies would not have to worry about sourcing extra capital in a short span of time.
The Road to Success
The growing phase for a startup is always the hardest. Understanding a market’s wants and needs as well as creating something that is useful and unique to meet that demand is an arduous process. However, Teo faced an interesting challenge: pioneering a new venture with no available market analysis or any indicator of how to set up the pricing of the rental fees and logistics of creating a BSL-2 laboratory.
“When we first started NSG BioLabs, there was nothing like this in Singapore, so it was very hard to say what was going to happen, and I think that was the hardest part: not knowing,” said Teo. But she also knew that that’s where the opportunity lay–to be a trendsetter. As she started working on this project, the COVID-19 pandemic made everything even harder. “There was literally no normal working day.”
Juggling multiple Zoom calls with clients and investors in Singapore and the US while developing and growing the newly opened site in Singapore, Teo powered through all the challenges. Reflecting back, she stated that the entire experience has made her more resilient. “We survived the whole startup phase, we survived COVID, so it has made us more resilient and stronger,” she said.
Now, business is booming. With the two sites in Singapore housing 20 resident companies, NSG BioLabs is now an influential player in incubating and assisting up-and-coming biotech firms and startups to kickstart their journey. Some of the current and former residents in NSG BioLabs include ImmunoScape, a cancer immunotherapy company that focuses on rapid profiling of T-cell receptors (TCRs) to identify novel therapeutically relevant TCRs for treating solid tumours. Then there is Acumen Research Laboratories, a Singaporean biotech company focusing on developing diagnostic test kits for infectious diseases. It was in NSG BioLabs that Acumen Research Laboratories developed the first COVID-19 PCR test kit in Singapore early in the pandemic.
Interestingly, larger companies have also approached NSG BioLabs. Applied Materials, L’Oreal, and Oxford Nanopore have now begun occupying the lab spaces, which came as a surprise for Teo. “When we first started NSG BioLabs, we thought it would be more for startups,” said Teo. “We didn’t know what the demand was going to be like. We built the lab space mainly to serve the needs of our own company and other startups, so we’ve been pleasantly surprised that large MNCs have also recognized the value of what we’ve created!”
Now with plans of expanding into a third site along with the planned launch of a new startup incubating programme called NSG Tomorrow, Teo hopes that the company continues to grow and create a space where even more biotech startups can thrive to revolutionize healthcare in Singapore and across Asia.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.