'Singapore needs a success story in biotech'
CEO of Aslan Pharmaceuticals on lack of investment appetite in biotechnology here
Aslan Pharmaceuticals may seem tiny in a sea of drug giants like GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer. But small is not always bad, said Dr Carl Firth, the biotech company's founder and chief executive.
"Big pharmas, they had their strengths, but they were very slow-moving. If you want to make a change in direction, it's very slow. There's lots of layers, lots of processes, they don't make a decision quickly," said Dr Firth, who spent 10 years in AstraZeneca in various commercial and research and development roles.
"So we deliberately set up Aslan to be something quite different. We wanted something that was small, that was nimble, that could make those decisions very quickly."
Set up in Singapore seven years ago, Aslan develops drugs for cancer types that are more common in Asia - namely biliary tract cancer, breast cancer and gastric cancer.
To date, the company has six projects at various stages. The frontrunner, and the closest to marketing approval, is a drug for biliary tract cancer.
Biliary tract cancer consists of gall bladder cancer, bile duct cancer and ampullary cancer, which is a rare form of gastrointestinal cancer.
Chemotherapy and radiotherapy have little effect on the cancer, and there are no approved drugs for it yet.
Aslan started building this drug from a compound that is ready to go into human clinical trails. It was acquired from another company.
Mr Firth said: "When we started Aslan, we felt that the quickest way to build a portfolio, to build a company, rather than to start from the beginning, is to actually acquire drugs from other companies that had already completed the laboratory and animal part of the testing."
It takes more than 12 years to get a drug from an initial idea all the way to the market, and half the time is spent on laboratory and animal testing.
The next six to seven years are spent on human clinical trials broken up into three phases.
Filing for approval of the drug, assuming that its efficacy has been shown in the trials, comes only after Phase 3 of the clinical trials is completed. Aslan's biliary tract cancer drug is now in Phase 3.
The funding for Aslan's projects comes from countries like the US, China, and Taiwan, where it was recently listed on the Taipei Exchange.
This is due to the poor investment appetite for biotechnology in Singapore, said Dr Firth.
"Singapore doesn't have a lot of local money that's interested in biotech. It'll rather invest in property or financial services or some other sector," he said.
"It's a bit of a chicken and egg (situation). If you don't have the companies, you don't have the investors. And if you don't have the investors, you don't have the companies."
To whet investment appetite in biotechnology here, he believes Singapore needs a success story - a multibillion-dollar company that makes investors think: "We could have been a part of this six years ago."
And Dr Firth hopes Aslan will be that success story.