It lasted only a week, but for all those involved, the recent science and technology trade mission to Singapore and Japan lived up to its billing, providing Ontario delegates with new opportunities to partner and to see firsthand what these two emerging global markets were all about.
Attendees included Ontario Genomics Institute (OGI) president and CEO Dr. Mark Poznansky and MaRS Innovation (MI) president and CEO Dr. Raphael (Rafi) Hofstein.
For Poznansky, the trip was a chance to spread the word about important projects going on at OGI, but more importantly an opportunity to find new allies and collaborative partners.
For Hofstein, the mission was an opportunity to seek out business partnerships for his many start-up companies and better understand how they could access new markets. For both Poznansky and Hofstein, this wasn’t their first trip to Southeast Asia, but it was perhaps their most successful.
“There was a definite feeling that they were open to discussions around collaboration especially with the research community in Singapore and in Japan,” comments Poznansky. “Both Rafi and I came away from our discussions with a strong feeling that they were very interested in what we had to offer, in fact we got the sense that they needed us as much as we needed them.”
During these discussions, both sides got to compare company and research portfolios and find areas of complementary strength. Hofstein and Poznansky were impressed that there were so many, and surprised by the shift in attitude towards scientific research in both countries from their respective governments. In Singapore particularly, the government has poured billions into research institutes such as the Biopolis Agency for Science and Technology Research (A*STAR) over the past three years.
“The main reason for Singapore’s cash infusion is that the country wants to improve its healthcare infrastructure, and strengthen its science and clinical sectors. It’s a process that really began in 2011, when the Singapore government announced a commitment of $16 billion over five years into science and technology, which is a truly staggering number,” says Hofstein.
Both men have no illusions about that cash flowing out of Singapore into Canada, but they do believe there are ways to tap into this infrastructure or even leverage Singapore’s commitment to science and technology to their advantage, starting with establishing joint ventures on a much larger scale.
“They’re getting money for science across government levels, which is great, but with that money there are now greater expectations of a return on investment and demands to deliver results more quickly,” says Poznansky.
“I believe innovation is all about speed,” Pozansky says, adding that being first in class is often difficult without the help of others. “The days of doing research on your own or working in silos are long gone. Chances are someone else out there is going to have the exact same idea and you’re in a race with them to get it to market. I believe it’s better to work with them to maximize the chance of successful product launch because put simply, you will reach your goal much quicker working together.”
It is this need to collaborate, fueled by Singapore’s (and Japan’s) internal pressures to produce results, that both Hofstein and Poznansky believe will create opportunities for Ontario. At the same time, both believe Singapore is very willing to collaborate.
“In our discussions with A*STAR, we hit upon two areas, rheumatoid arthritis and the genomics of mental illness, that they were very interested in what we were doing,” says Poznansky. “The people at the Genome Institute of Singapore are very committed to solving issues of mental illness, such as schizophrenia and depression. They’ve made this commitment based on the burden of illness, and the economic opportunities in this area and they see the work we’ve done with CAMH, the work of Dr. James Kennedy, head of the Tanenbaum Centre for Pharmacogenetics and found that there is common interest. It’s a tremendously important area of personalized medicine that has huge economic potential in terms of genetic testing for predetermination of efficacy and drug interactions. So there’s a possibility of us getting together with them on a potential project at the discovery and clinical level, and maybe even the commercialization level.”
For Hofstein, his interest in Singapore goes beyond scientific collaborations. He believes the country’s location in relation to the Asian market is also an asset.
“Singapore’s close proximity to India and China is very significant to what we are trying to accomplish,” explains Hofstein, who introduced two companies from MI’s portfolio to Singapore delegates: XLV Diagnostics Inc. and DLVR Therapeutics Inc. “XLV Diagnostics was started as a joint venture between Sunnybrook and a research centre in Thunder Bay, and the company is developing a low-cost system for mammography. This is relevant because of the epidemic breast cancer outbreak in China and India that is placing a heavy burden on their healthcare systems. They can’t afford to install the highly expensive mammography systems in this area, which creates opportunity for XLV Diagnostics’ technology to break into these markets,” he says.
The same is true for DLVR Therapeutics, an oncology company with technology that uses a critical property of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) biology to create a hydrophobic channel in the cell membrane, which allows for the delivery of drugs into tumour cells. Though both technologies are promising, accessing the Asian market is the true challenge.
“The Singapore market provides a gateway into China and India for both XLV Diagnostics and DLVR Therapeutics,” explains Hofstein. “Partnering with Singapore may make this entry process easier since having a partner who understands the mentality, knows the language and people can pave the road into these markets in a more amiable way.”
Poznansky adds, “In our experience, Singapore knows how to open gates into China. They speak the language and they know how to map market needs. That in itself is a very valuable thing. And it’s not just China; they also have strong ties with South Korea and Southeast Asia.”
The trade-off would be a reciprocal arrangement where MI volunteers its capabilities to help its Singapore counterparts enter North American markets.
“They understand MI’s value in terms of the way we have positioned ourselves in Canada and North America,” says Hofstein. “It makes sense for them to rely on us as we rely on them in Southeast Asia.”
Discussions around this arrangement are ongoing.
Opportunities in Japan
The goodwill from Hofstein’s and Poznansky’s discussions in Singapore was duplicated on the Japan leg of the trip where each found opportunities to speak with their Japanese counterparts. The RIKEN Institute, like A*STAR in Singapore, took great interest in the work of Dr. Kennedy and OGI.
“On this front, the tangible results are that we made contact with a number of people who are interested in what we’re doing,” says Poznansky adding he can already see what the next steps are. “Firstly, they’re pooling populations of patients with schizophrenia and depression, and seeing how they’re being treated in Tokyo and comparing that to how they’re being treated in the Toronto area. They are also comparing the genetic tests that are being done, to see how the drugs are metabolized and how individual patients are going to react or not react. They are very interested in the company AssureRx Canada, its parent company Assurex Health and also CAMH. We have a very strong sense from the RIKEN Institute right on down from leadership that they want to do business,” says Poznansky.
For Hofstein, the trip to Japan included a visit to the BioJapan Conference where he met with local pharma companies.
“It’s an event that’s a lot like the BIO Convention in North America and has similar features, sizable exhibits, lectures and of course, most importantly, biopartnering. I tried to take full advantage of the partnering opportunities; even before going, we suggested to the Canadian embassy to arrange meetings for us with key leaders in Japanese pharma.”
The embassy successfully arranged meetings with several companies, including Astellas Pharma, Shionogi and Mitsubishi Pharma, among others.
“Those meetings were quite successful,” says Hofstein. “I discovered that Japanese big pharma, like their North American counterparts, are looking to biotech more and more to fulfi ll their R&D activities. They are late-comers in that respect, so the timing of our visit couldn’t be better.”
Hofstein adds that if he were to map the interests of Japanese pharma across the subsectors of medicine, everything they are looking for is available in Canada.
“The research they need to replenish their pipeline is all happening in Canada, whether it’s oncology research, autoimmune disease research, neurodegenerative disease research, personalized medicine, etc. It’s just a matter of how we are able to package, present and tailor it to their specific requirements.”
In terms of how MI can work with these pharma companies, Hofstein already has plans to start sending them technologies for them to review as a prelude for business discussions.
Another key area that Hofstein stressed during his meetings with Japan was the idea that Ontario and Canada could be an ideal destination for clinical development. “We have organizations such as Clinical Trials Ontario, Centre for the Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), MI and others, and if we combine that into one big stronghold, we have the capabilities of cost effective clinical development.”
Overall, while both Poznansky and Hofstein were impressed with what they saw through this trade mission, they feel it’s only a first step. Success in convincing Japanese and Singapore interests to work with Ontario’s life science community hinges on building relationships and trust.
“There’s no question a successful deal requires a certain level of trust. It seems to me that the people who we spoke with are really are looking to push the frontiers of their areas forward. We need to reach their top science and business people, tell them about our challenges are in terms of getting to the market, learn about their challenges, and develop the kind of relationship where you can discuss common problems. After that, it’s possible to think about common solutions and then about where the money will come from,” says Poznansky.
“It’s important that we not try to impose what we believe to be the right way to go,” says Hofstein. “On the contrary, we need to take the listener’s stance. The key to success is flexibility. You need to be innovative and adapt your product or service to their reality, because they understand what it takes to develop a product in Asia and bring it to their market.”
Still, both men believe Ontario is poised to tap into these two markets thanks to this trade mission and now have a better understanding of the lay of the land.
“I think we established the right relationships with the right people. Following up is the key to ensure that we continue to build upon our progress,” says Hofstein. “Whether it’s speaking with them over the phone and Skype regularly or taking a more aggressive approach, but we have to have a regular presence. Everyone talks about addressing the needs of emerging markets, but the only ones that are truly successful at it are the ones that appreciate the need to follow up.”
“I feel if nothing comes of this, it will be a mistake,” adds Poznansky. “That doesn’t mean that every senior official in the life sciences should run to Japan and Singapore without thinking things through, but certainly if a company knows of some serious activity going on in Singapore and Japan in their area of business or research, I think they would be remiss if they don’t explore opportunities to get involved over there.”