Singapore grooms medical technology talent


Singapore, Dec 12, 2011: The Singapore-Stanford Biodesign (SSB) Programme Office has announced the graduation of its inaugural batch of SSB Fellows. The four SSB Fellow Graduates are equipped with innovation and entrepreneurship skills to invent, develop and commercialise innovative medical devices to address present day healthcare needs. The event also unveiled the second batch of new Fellows awarded the 2012 SSB Fellowship. These four recipients will begin the first six-month curriculum of their one-year fellowship programme at Stanford University in Jan next year.

Jointly launched by the Agency of Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) and Stanford University last year, the SSB program seeks to groom the next generation of Asian leaders in medical device innovation. Modelled after the Stanford Biodesign programme, fellows work in multi-disciplinary teams (spanning fields ranging from medicine and engineering to business) to develop viable solutions for identified healthcare needs of Asia. This multidisciplinary approach that trains fellows in the entire value chain of medical device innovation is in line with A*STAR’s push to develop multi-disciplinary integrated research efforts to meet healthcare demands of the future.

Currently, the worldwide medtech industry accounts for approximately $336 billion in annual revenues. The sector is characterised by rapid growth rates, high profit margins, innovative technology, quality engineering and manufacturing capabilities, as well as a vibrant R&D ecosystem. Leveraging on Singapore’s existing strengths in engineering, manufacturing and biomedical research, the local medtech industry has witnessed fast growth over the years. The manpower base in the sector has doubled from about 4,000 in 2000 to more than 8,000 in 2010. Its manufacturing output has also risen from $1.5 billion in 2000 to $3.6 billion in 2010. Singapore currently houses 25 medtech companies, and is also a fast-growing medtech innovation hub with more than 30 medtech companies conducting R&D.

"The SSB Programme underscores Singapore’s commitment to develop a pool of multi-disciplinary talent that understands Asian clinical needs and the medtech innovation process. Companies looking to develop innovative healthcare solutions for the rapidly-growing Asian markets can do so in Singapore by leveraging programmes such as the SSB" said Mr. Yeoh Keat Chuan, Assistant Managing Director of the Singapore Economic Development Board.

The clinical theme for the inaugural batch of SSB Fellows was on ophthalmology. To identify real-world clinical needs, Fellows shadowed eye clinicians and healthcare providers during their stints in both Stanford and the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC). They systematically filtered from over 400 clinical needs associated with eye problems, down to the top two needs.

The first clinical need was for a more cost-effective surgical procedure for cataract treatment. This is particularly critical in developing countries where many people suffer from cataract blindness due to poor access to quality eye care or the inability to afford expensive operation. Though effective, the current method is very costly. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 18 million people are blind from cataracts, and this represents almost half of all causes of blindness. The new medical device developed by the Fellows eliminates the need for an expensive ultrasonic source that is used in the current method, thereby, potentially reducing the cost by more than half.

The second clinical need for a more reliable Visual Field Test was identified after the Fellows noticed how difficult it is for glaucoma patients to take the current gold-standard test, which is only about 60 percent reliable. The current test requires patients to keep their eyes fixated on a particular spot as well as accurate hand-eye coordination, which is particularly difficult for elderly patients, who make up a significant proportion of all glaucoma patients. Through integration of advanced computational tools and existing technologies in high-performance image processing and optical engineering, the Fellows developed an innovative concept that uses a gaze-tracking technology, which eliminates the tedious hand-eye coordination and the need for patients to keep their eyes fixated throughout the test. This makes the Visual Field test more patient-friendly and also potentially increases the reliability to more than 90 percent. The SSB Fellows are working with collaborators to develop both projects to the proof-of-concept stage.

Said Prof Low Teck Seng, managing director of A*STAR, "This pioneer batch of SSB Fellows showcase both the clinical and technical talent that Singapore will invest, in generating the human capital for the MedTech industry in Singapore. I am confident that these Fellows will contribute significantly to the growth of the MedTech ecosystem for Singapore."

Said Founder and Director of the Stanford Biodesign Programme, Prof Paul Yock, who is also a notable medtech innovator himself, "We are very impressed by the consistently high calibre SSB Fellows of the first and second batch. I believe that this partnership to foster medtech innovations in Singapore and Silicon Valley will continue to be mutually beneficial for both U.S. and Singapore as global demands for better healthcare products shift to Asia."

As part of a wider effort to raise the profile of the MedTech industry here, A*STAR partnered National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to organise the first joint postgraduate SSB Innovation Class in Singapore in August this year. Students from both universities were taught by industry professionals and faculty staff, and mentored by the inaugural batch of SSB Fellows to develop medical devices from concept to commercialisation. The best team from the class presented their prototype and business strategy at the SSB Graduation ceremony last night. Using real-time ultrasound imaging, the team conceived a medical device that will enhance the safety of vitrectomy, a surgical procedure to remove the vitreous humor, which is the clear internal jelly of the eye.

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