"...at the center of the $500 million Biopolis is a shining
$250,000 sculpture of the SARS virus" - Straits Times 11 Feb 2007.
"I thought we are suppose to debate BEFORE the money is spent
not AFTER it is all wasted..."- Lucky Tan.
Looks like the great biomedical debate has started between Philip Yeo and Lee Wei Ling. All this after billions has already been spent. Before the PAP govt gave out $68 million (over 18 months to 90,000 families) of Comcare money to the poor in Singapore, they vigorously debate for extended periods about the evils of welfare, the need for Singaporeans to help themselve when they are down and out...and how difficult it is financially for the PAP govt to help ordinary Singaporeans...so they have to increase GST to do it. You see when the govt spends money on ordinary Singaporeans, they have to be very very careful because they worried that a family whose sole breadwinner is jobless, whose ultilities have been cut off and children have been been living on Maggie mee will not become spoilt when they are given any money. When they spend billions on Shin Corp, Micropolis & Biotech there is little need for public debate because they are always successful. The reason why they are always successful is the PAP is so brilliant they define own criteria for success ....
The Biomed debate actually has been going on for quite a while now among Singaporeans in the Internet and even at coffee shops. However, it takes someone with the stature of Lee Wei Ling to bring it out to the open. Conundrum is now a favorite word to describe our Biomedical sector, although they have been totally successful at producing test tube washers, any 'results' will only be seen in 10 to 15 years according to Philip Yeo.
Although my non-elite mind and my lack of what the elites call helicopter vision makes me totally unworthy of joining this debate, I've more than a decade of hard knocks experience investing in biotech companies. I've screened hundreds of biotech companies, their products and followed them for many years. The reason why the US govt left Biotech in the hands of private sector profit oriented companies is because it is a highly risky business. It is an area best left to the private sector to develop because of the high costs and risk taking involved. It is an area you really don't want to use tax payer's money to develop and get civil servants to allocate funds because of the huge risks involved. It is irresponsible to subject tax payers money to such high risks and civil servants are hardly the right people for risk taking in biotech.
The main reasons why Singapore should be careful when investing in Biotech:
1. Singapore has no comparative advantage. Many of the Biotech firms have links to or originate from large regional hospitals that has patient data for a base of 20-40 million people. The genes causing breast cancer was found in Utah because the Mormons kept meticulous records of family history and there was a huge regional hospital there. Besides the US, we have to contend with the Europeans, Japanese and now the Chinese. Singapore doesn't build cars because we have no comparative advantage in car manufacture. ...why go into Biotech. To attract companies to come here losing their comparative advantage we have to pay them...they end up making money from us rather than the other way round.
2. Biotech requires scale and critical mass. For every cancer drug that succeeds, thousands fail. How a drug is discovered is by screening tens of thousands of possible compounds. They are tested on animals and if they show any promise they go for the various phases of human trials before they are approved by the FDA. The journey is long and tedious.....a drug might take like a decade to make its way from the lab to the consumer. Along the way, it might fail the FDA trials, it might face competition from other alternatives. After its approval, it has a limited time to recoup its investments before generic drug makers come in.
3. Success in Biotech requires a whole ecosystem. This ecosystem consists of savvy investors, passionate scientists, hospitals, etc. A govt panel or civil servants trying to identify winners is hardly the best approach.
Singapore is UNIQUE. In other countries, the govt concentrates on spending taxpayer's money on social programmes so that social advancements can take place. ....investing in high risk sectors is left to private sector. In Singapore, it is the other way around, social problems are left to private organisations such as (our now famous!) charities, churches etc while the govt use taxpayer's money for high risk investments such as Biomed & Shin Corp. Where will this lead us? .....Singaporeans can always count on their luck when the future arrives!!!