Updated on 6 March 2013
I then came back to help set up the Eli Lilly site in Singapore in 2008, as they decided to expand R&D into Asia. This was again a tremendous experience, I got to set up a new lab with a few other initial employees of the new site, this time a much bigger lab. I developed the local R&D program, we hired about 50 people and established a lot of partnerships with local research institutions. However, in 2010, Lilly made the business decision to shift the Singapore operations to Shanghai, to enhance access to China market.
I decided at that time to set up a contract research company, as the major trend moving forward for pharma companies was outsourcing of R&D to achieve cost-effectiveness and tap into diverse talents. So that is how Acumen Research Labs was started in early 2010. Acumen provides contract research services in early pre-clinical phases of projects that are customized, which is quite unique in the CRO industry (most CROs are specialized). So my mentors who are both academic cum Biotechnology industrialists have tremendous influence on my career track.
I think it's in evolving the business model from being purely a contract research company to include also our own R&D for developing diagnostics. We see the companies around that are specialty contract research organizations (CROs) and do not do their own research, or technology development company that focus on developing products based on proprietary IP. We started as a contract research company as that involved less capital upfront. Along the way, business volume fluctuates depending on amount of spending on R&D outsourcing by pharma companies.
In China and India, many CROs get into fierce price competitions because of this. I did not start with technology development company as huge investments would be needed (we are talking about tens of millions of dollars upfront for even a small startup) and still many such companies at some point became cash-strapped.
So I took a hybrid model from the second year onwards till today. Revenues from the service component, together with grants help to fund our internal R&D, that we plan to commercialize through licensing or product development & sales.
I have been fortunate to have access to many opportunities to learn and do things, I am very glad that I can be a scientist, professor and entrepreneur all in one career; this is possible through starting Acumen Research Labs. It's not an easy path but so far, we are 3 years old, very progressive & has 6 employees (3 PhD, 2 MSc, 1 BSc). I would say switching to the pharmaceutical industry in 2007 instead of staying in academic research. I am a very active person and need a more multi-faceted career by that time when I was about 35 years old. So combining all the experiences gained equipped me with the key competencies and the network of contacts to start a company.
There are challenges from time to time, of course. The most recent major one would be the first contract for Acumen. This was a biomarker project from a company in Poland. It was a 1-year project and was very a important one to help the company get started. We have completed it end of last year with all the milestones delivered on time and within budget but it was very challenging the whole process given the language barrier and significant difference in business culture; I took a lot of effort to understand the Polish culture and build relations with a very large number of Polish people. Some of the Polish people do not speak much English so we needed translators and I actually learnt to speak conversational Polish online. It took about 1 year to negoatiate and finally sign the contract, and I went to Poland 3 times for that. Then it was another year to complete the project & I went to Poland quarterly for project meetings, in addition to the regular communications by phone and emails. In total I went to Poland 7 times in 2 years.