If you have been keeping a lookout for promising biotech companies in Asia to invest in, then you have probably heard about ASLAN, a Singapore based biotech company founded in 2010. Dr Carl Firth, the CEO and founder and his team has worked tirelessly to build innovative therapeutic products focusing on treating patients in Asia, as well as several rare disease indications for patients in the west. Since its foundation in 2010, ASLAN has won many industry awards, including our own BioPharma Industry Awards in 2015, 2016 and more. After its recent IPO, we talked to ASLAN to invite him to join us again at out 10th anniversary Biopharma Asia Convention. Here is a preview of what you can expect from his keynote interview with CNBC on 23 March.
Q: What’s the idea behind founding ASLAN?
Firth: My colleagues and I established ASLAN with a vision to transform the treatment of Asia prevalent cancers. Our previous careers in big pharma made two things quite apparent to us – first, that there is a high unmet need in the treatment of Asian diseases, which are often overlooked by large drug development companies. If you take gastric cancer for example, the number of gastric cancer patients in Asia is 40 times greater than in the United States, and unfortunately for these patients, the prognosis has not changed much in the last 20 years.
Secondly, we realised that there was an emerging cluster of high quality clinical centres in Asia, and if we wanted to do something about this, we needed to be in an environment where the experts and patients are located.
Q: What encouraged you to start a biotech company in Singapore, instead of in other countries in Asia?
Firth: We chose Singapore quite simply because it provided ASLAN with the best prospects. The country’s government promotes and sustains the biotech industry through a combination of good infrastructure, regulation and pro-enterprise policies.
Being based in Singapore has also allowed us access to some of the region’s leading research institutions and centres. We have established strong partnerships with key institutions such as the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), National Cancer Centre Singapore, the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore and the National University Cancer Institute Singapore, to name a few. These institutions have some of the world’s best scientists and researchers who are passionate about drug development and clinical research, and have conducted extensive experimental drug research.
Finally, Singapore offers a broad pool of talent that is well trained in intellectual property, clinical research and development.
Q: Why is Taiwan chosen as the next destination after Singapore to branch out research and outreach?
Firth: Taiwan has a vibrant local biotech ecosystem, driven partly by their history in drug manufacturing and partly because of the availability of both private and public capital. We started activities in Taiwan in 2013, using high quality clinical centres there to access a broader range of patients. Though our headquarters are firmly in Singapore, we have built a strong local team in Taiwan, tapping into other pools of talent.
More recently, we have chosen to access the Taiwan public capital markets, where there are numerous listed biotech companies and public market investors with a strong interest in this sector.
Q: What is lacking in the current healthcare system in Asia, and what can entrepreneurs aspire to achieve, to meet these needs?
Firth: With multiple emerging economies in Asia, opportunities exist for greater innovations that can impact the large, underlying trends – ageing populations, a rise in chronic illnesses and even rising affluence in the region will change the way healthcare systems work.
Increasingly we are seeing greater demand from patients for drugs that make a real difference in their outcomes. If there is a space for entrepreneurs to tap into, it might be getting involved in, or helping to give rise to the innovations that are needed for these drugs to be developed. What is needed are innovations of a scale large enough to effect real progress.
At the same time, having a strong commercial and business acumen is just as important to be able to translate these innovations into marketable products in order to have true impact.
Q: What are your next steps in ASLAN?
Firth: We are currently pursuing a public listing on the Taiwan Stock Exchange. The listing will enable us to raise additional capital, which we will use to advance the development of our portfolio, acquire new assets to build our pipeline, as well as grow our presence in Asia.
Q: Any advice for aspiring healthcare entrepreneur in Asia?
Firth: Anyone entering the healthcare space in Asia is doing so at a very exciting time. We are seeing great advances being made in healthcare. Five or six years ago, no one could have imagined we would be able to make any progress in finding a cure for cancer; now the prospect of immuno-oncology is moving us closer to the goal of developing drugs that can cure cancers. So things are promising, both for the industry, and the talents that are enabling these changes.
For any entrepreneur, my advice would be to find opportunities that personally excite you. Starting up or joining any young business is not for the faint-hearted, and during the tough times, you’ll rely on your passions to drive you forwards. For me, whenever I hear about a patient in one of our clinical studies who perhaps had exhausted all their other treatment options, but responded well to our drug and is now looking forward to a longer and better quality life – it motivates me to work.